No, this isn't a high school sporting event, but the national FIRST competition.
"FIRST was created to give a perspective on science in the world by showing students what they can accomplish, much the same as the NBA has done for basketball," says Dean Kamen, founder of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST).
FIRST is a non-profit organization with the purpose of giving high school students hands-on experience building and designing robots that compete in hopes of garnering awards and scholarships. In this article, we chronicle six high school students and FIRST participants who are now on their way to becoming the engineers of the future. For many, engineering mentors made a great difference in students careers and long-term goals.
Number of FIRST teams skyrocket
For example, former student James Woodson was so inspired by FIRST that he became a mentor in the fall of 2001 for the Buzz Robotics Team, Windsor Locks, CT. "I wanted to give back to students by giving them the same kind of experiences that I had with FIRST. It made for a big jump from being the one asking questions to answering questions. It's an amazing experience to see students' faces change when they've been able to complete something they couldn't have done before," says Woodson. "The dynamics of the interaction, is what makes mentoring so enjoyable." says Woodson.
The most rewarding thing about mentoring students in the FIRST Robotics competition is "the free student labor," engineer Andrew Farkas says jokingly. "Seriously, what I enjoy most is making a difference in their lives. I'm sure this is true for the many professors and past co-workers who went beyond their paycheck to share their knowledge and experiences with me." Currently working in the Pneutronics division of Parker Hannifin, Farkas has 17 years experience as an engineer and has mentored FIRST students since 1999. "Seeing the students becoming excited about engineering is really one of the things I enjoy the most about mentoring. It is really amazing to see the transformation of the students as they discover the gateway that turns their ideas into reality."
Although thousands of engineers like Farkas and Woodson have donated their time to mentor over the years, FIRST is still in need of new mentors in order for it to continue to grow. In fact, five states in the U.S. do not have any FIRST Robotics teams. "Many more schools want to get involved with the program, but there are not enough mentors," says the Executive Director of FIRST, David Brown. "Technical mentors are important," says Kamen, "because they are the heroes of our culture." To find out how to get involved with FIRST, visit www.usfirst.org. For information on starting your own FIRST team, contact FIRST at: 1-800 871-8326.
Computer Engineering, New Jersey Institute of Technology, 2006
FIRST RobbeXtreme Team #56 (1998-2002), Bound Brook High School, Bound Brook, NJ
A member of the American Legion Jersey Boys State Delegate and Who's Who Among American High School Students, Michael Allenovitch has been part of his FIRST team for four years. "I joined FIRST to gain more knowledge about engineering, science, and technology," says Michael. "I worked on the controls design throughout my four years as a FIRST team member. I was vice president of the team in my junior year and president and chief of design in my senior year. I designed and built the electrical systems of the robot and programmed the controllers as well. After learning a lot about computers on my own, the Board of Education in my town decided to hire me full time in the summer to help install a new computer network throughout the district. Due to the recommendations of the engineers I was working with through FIRST, I'll be going to the New Jersey Institute of Technology."
Engineering mentor Michael Bregen also sees the positive impact that FIRST had on Michael Allenovitch. "It gave him some great concrete direction and he is now planning for a degree in engineering," says Bregen. "It became apparent to me how much he changed when I saw him give a PowerPoint presentation. I sat back and thought, 'Wow is this the same guy?' When he first joined the program, his personality really blossomed and he became an outgoing leader this year."
Biomedical Engineering, University of Michigan, 2006
FIRST ThunderChickens Team #217 (2001-2002), Utica Community Schools Systems, Sterling Heights, MI
A member of both the Macomb All-County and All-Conference Academic teams, Jessica received a scholarship to attend the University of Michigan. "I was interested in engineering before I became involved in FIRST. However, as the season progressed, I decided to major in
(biomedical) engineering," says Jessica. "I joined FIRST because of that interest in engineering and I was also encouraged to join by some of my friends who were veteran members of the team. I have been involved with both the engineering team and strategy team. It was nice to be involved with FIRST where it is alright for a person to get excited about robots and to walk around in a neon green shirt with a chicken on the front which, for some reason, a lot of people consider strange."
Jessica's Engineering Mentor Paul Copioli also observed the positive impact of FIRST on her life. "It exposed her to taking on a leadership role and working with others in a technical environment," says Copioli. "She was a major contributor and the real artistic talent behind our robot. Jessica's explanations of the technical specs of the transmission helped get us the Delphi Driving Tomorrow's Technology Award."
Computer Science, Florida Institute of Technology, 2006
FIRST Space Coast Team #233 (2000-2002), Rockledge High, Cocoa Beach, FL
A member of the National Honor Society with a 3.8 GPA, Ben joined FIRST as a high school junior. "I have always been interested in computers and engineering. I took apart everything with a battery when I was young" says Ben. "FIRST exposed me to all aspects of engineering, from the design process to developing software controls. I became extremely interested in the programming of the robot because I had to use all the physics and math I learned in school to create the algorithms for the program. The biggest role I played was being the base driver. I also helped with design and construction, programming, and the electrical system. Because of FIRST, I have gained many critical skills, including meeting deadlines, working as a team, making decisions that impact our team, and communication."
Both Ben's engineering mentor and his teacher say that he made a major impact on the FIRST team. "Our success was largely due to the fact that Ben lead us to the victory. His behavior on the team set an example and he led others to levels of greatness," says engineering mentor, Andrew Bradley. Teacher Marion Passmore agrees. "He always sets an example of gracious professionalism and will surely be missed as a student member of our team, but we will be welcoming his return next year as a mentor."
Mechanical Engineering, Ohio State University, 2007
FIRST Delphi E.L.I.T.E. Team #48 (2000-2002), Warren G. Harding High School, Warren, OH
A member of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and the National Honor Society with a 3.97 GPA, Joseph was chosen to intern this summer in the engineering department at the General Motors Lordstown Metal Assembly Plant through the A.I.I.M. (An Investment In Me) program. "FIRST affected my life tremendously after my sophomore year," says Joseph. "It had such a large effect on me in 10th grade that I knew what I wanted to do in my college career—I was going to be an engineer. The most important thing that I'll take away from FIRST is the fact that I must be committed to helping others accomplish their dreams. I realize that I have to help young children to realize that they can have whatever they want, regardless of their initial beginnings in life."
According to his teacher, Chris Knifer, Joseph has already got a head start helping others. "Joseph went to other schools and recruited new kids, which was the key to getting our robotics out into the community." Joseph's engineering mentor, Michael Allender adds, "Joe was our student robot team captain responsible for heading up our robot assembly efforts. Although he will be greatly missed next year, he has set a great example for our younger team members and a high benchmark for them to strive for."
Engineering, Saginaw Valley State University, 2006
FIRST Robotic Knights Team #49 (1998-2002) Buena Vista Township, Saginaw, MI
Lawrence Jones, a member of the National Honor Society who is ranked in the top 20 of his class, has won numerous scholarships including the Dow Promise scholarship ($20,000), the John and
Nesbeth Bees scholarship, and the Buena Vista High School scholarship. "Before I was a part of the team," says Lawrence, "I had an interest in science and technology, but I did not have a clear understanding of what engineering was all about. Being a member of FIRST gave me the opportunity to learn first-hand what engineering is all about. I now apply what I have learned in school to everyday life and have a better perception of the craft: engineers are problem-solvers. One of the most inspiring people I ever met was an engineer from Dow Chemical Co. named John Clement. He gave me the chance to show off my potential by letting me work on every aspect of the robot. Thanks to my experiences with FIRST, I have learned a valuable lesson: you have a better chance at excellence when you work together as a team to reach a common goal."
According to teacher Dale Brownscombec, Lawrence gradually became the "defacto leader." "At the start of his freshman year, Lawrence was dominated by more vocal students. Over time, his self-confidence improved and so did his study habits. He was really adept at getting the more vocal team members to incorporate his ideas and they made sure Lawrence received credit for effectively communicating the ideas the official leaders had trouble expressing."
Aeronautical Engineering, 2009
FIRST Delphi E.L.I.T.E. Team #48 (2001-2002), Warren G. Harding High School, Warren, OH
Paul Morrison has had a Gold Renaissance Card (4.0 GPA) for three trimesters, and also received a plaque for being on the WSCN (Warren Student Communication Network) staff. "I joined FIRST because I have an interest in engineering and have been fascinated by robotics ever since I got a remote-control car on my sixth birthday," says Paul. "I also enjoy math and science, so when FIRST was introduced to me, I dove right in. It really has inspired me to go on to study engineering. The six-week build period and the competitions gave me a real sense of teamwork. During the season, I would see my team members more than family members. Occasionally on Fridays, I'd go to school at seven in the morning and I wouldn't get home until one or two the next morning. My team members became a second family to me."
Teacher Chris Knifer saw the immediate effect that Paul had once he joined the team. "Paul became a productive team member right off the bat, and is the first freshman to have made such a positive impact on our team," says Knifer. "Normally, freshmen want to sit back, observe, and learn before taking on a lot. As our driver, he came in and took charge of every task we gave him. Building the robot is not the only thing we help the kids with; we also help students out with their classes. FIRST gave Paul a place to feel more comfortable and it definitely made adjusting to the transition from junior high to high school a lot easier."