FIRST® Robotics helps us understand how to:
+ Support students by providing them with mentorship and collaborative learning environments that are challenging and personally rewarding
+ Harness the power of competition to get students to push themselves to achieve in STEM subjects
+ Motivate students to continue driving their own learning outside of the classroom
A die-hard spectator would say that the FIRST® Robotics Rebound Rumble of 2012, held in St. Louis, Missouri, was just as exciting as any professional sporting event. It was the World Championship, after all, the culmination of several weeks of contests among more than 58,000 participants from Israel, Canada, and the United States, including a handful of teams from Arkansas.
In 2012, the FIRST® Robotics Competition (FRC) challenged students to use 150-pound human-controlled rolling robots with mechanical arms to scoop up basketballs and shoot them into baskets of varying heights. Two alliances, each with three robots, had only 2 minutes and 15 seconds to score as many baskets as they could.
Students, teachers, parents, sponsors, and professional mentors from Mountain Home, Arkansas, celebrated the crowning of their very own Baxter Bomb Squad as FIRST® Robotics World Champions. Fort Smith’s Southside High School and Searcy’s Harding Academy also competed strongly in the championship.
The Baxter Bomb Squad is a veteran team with more than 20 years of success in FIRST®, a robotics competition for youth ages 6 - 18. In 1989, inventor Dean Kamen created FIRST®, which stands for "Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," to inspire youth around the world to apply their STEM knowledge and have fun by creating and operating robots. A recent survey found that two out of every five Fortune 500 companies supported FIRST®, and 10 percent of the MIT class of 2013 were FIRST® Alumni. Today, FIRST® recruits professional engineers to closely mentor students, developing their potential and passion for science, technology, and engineering. More than 180 college, universities, and companies offer scholarships totaling $20 million to FIRST® students.
Meredith Novak of Mountain Home, a U.S. FIRST® Regional Director, is one of 14 mentors who works with Baxter Bomb Squad. Novak loves the way that FIRST® connects K–12 students, STEM higher education, and STEM professions. These connections are possible, she says, because the program simply builds off what kids love to do. “We all know kids play basketball, kids play soccer, kids shoot Frisbee,” she says. “So we have kids who build robots to play basketball, shoot Frisbee, and play soccer.”
In a FIRST®-obsessed community like Mountain Home, students can create and operate robots throughout school. They progress through the three levels of FIRST®: Lego League for grades K–3, the FIRST® Tech Challenge for grades 7–12, and FIRST® Robotics for high schoolers. The program needs the direction and involvement of engineering mentors, but this is rarely a problem: Novak says she always finds willing volunteers from Baxter Healthcare, an international medical equipment manufacturer with a facility in Mountain Home and a FIRST founding sponsor.
Although engineering mentors are crucial to FIRST®’s success, adult volunteers help students run the many areas of a FIRST® operation, including design, programming, marketing, and fundraising. FIRST® also awards students for achievements in other STEM-related areas like website development and 3D animation.
Novak points out that FIRST® isn’t just fun—it also builds the STEM pipeline in Arkansas. Through the years, she’s watched several students take an initial interest in STEM subjects through FIRST®, choose a STEM major in college, and later land jobs as engineers—some with Baxter Healthcare. Amber Williamson, a team mentor and engineer, says that joining Baxter Bomb Squad ultimately inspired her career: “I had no idea that I would be interested in engineering until I joined Baxter Bomb Squad. After I joined the team, I began to realize I loved what I was doing—and I could make a career out of it.”
FIRST® Programs are not for the faint of heart. The challenges of designing and operating robots are hard on students, and not every community is lucky enough to have a local business like Baxter Healthcare, which offers generous funding and qualified mentors. Novak believes that more in-state businesses should get involved as sponsors.
In 2011, the State Senate passed a resolution to support FIRST® programs and encourage their growth throughout the state. Arkansas’s next step should be to listen to the students, many of whom began dreaming big after a little Ozark town claimed the FIRST® Robotics crown. According to Novak, “Kids are asking their schools, ‘Why don’t I have a team like the Bomb Squad?’”