As follow up to my article on the Top 10 Differences in High School Sports and Robotics – and just home from the FIRST World Championships in St. Louis – I thought I’d share the top 10 most inspiring moments from my first year as a parent of a robotics team member. Thank you to all of you who inspired me.
#10 Fireproof – Just 20 seconds into a qualifying match at the Queen City First Robotics Competition (FRC), the team 3692 machine came to an unexpected stop, then started spewing out smoke! Officials stopped the match and the head referee stepped onto the field with fire extinguishers to put out the flames. Nobody was injured, but the part was a complete loss.
With several matches left, and no replacement part, the Rock N’ Robots from Janesville, Wisconsin were essentially out of the competition. Until, that is, several competing teams came to their aid. The Icarus team (2081 from Peoria, Illinois) loaned them a replacement PDP board. Another team provided a needed talon. And several others stopped by their pit to offer advice, ideas, and manpower.
Their robot was repaired within 90 minutes, and the team returned to competition that afternoon, missing only one additional match. Despite that disadvantage, team 3692 finished 28th out of 47 teams – an inspiring testament to the cooperative spirit of FIRST that I’m not used to seeing in any other competitive endeavor.
#9 Superheroes – On the topic of cooperation, I was inspired to see that one team (#537, Charger Robotics from Hamilton High School in Sussex, Wisconsin) has taken helping other teams to a whole new level of dedication. Dubbed their “Red Rovers,” some of their team members are assigned to rove the pit area during each competition offering help to any team that needs it. These inspiring heroes are part of the reason team 537 won the Queen City Chairman’s Award.
#8 The unstoppable Jessie Kuse of Team Titanium #1986 from Lee’s Summit, Missouri – Jessie was born in China where she was abandoned as an infant on the steps of a police station and later adopted by a family in the United States.
She’s been involved in FIRST since 4th grade. But after her freshman year, she was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition that’s left her with only a 5-degree field of vision (compared to nearly 180 degrees for most people) and which may eventually leave her completely blind. Despite that hardship, Jessie has continued with robotics, serving this year as co-captain of the team. She also mentors two First Lego League (FLL) teams, and helped start a Jr. FLL team in Lee’s Summit.
After graduation, Jessie plans to go on to college and is considering a double major in electrical engineering and English. She also plans to referee future FLL competitions, volunteer at FRC events, and mentor the next generation of First participants. Jessie hasn’t let anything stop her from achieving her goals so far, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
#7 Girl Power – There were 47 teams competing at the Queen City Regional. Most of them can boast having co-ed teams, which in itself is inspiring since the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) are still skewed heavily male. But even more inspiring to me, as an indication of progress, is that one of those 47 teams not only has female members, but is comprised entirely of young women — the Tin Mints #4575 from Eastern Pennsylvania. Their team members are part of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania and are one of four all-girl teams among the 116 teams in the Mid-Atlantic region.
In St. Louis, I met young women from other all-female teams, including team SWAT #771 from Ontario, Canada. They’ve created an outreach program for girls as young as pre-school to get them excited about robotics. They’ve even written a book they hope to get published, called “Millie with a Wrench” to highlight a heroine with mechanical skills.
I also met the Girls of Steel, team #3504 of Pittsburgh when they hosted a seminar on bringing more gender balance to robotics. I learned that “one of the main reasons there aren’t more girls in robotics is because there aren’t more girls in robotics.” Creating these all-girl teams establishes an inviting and intimidation-free zone for girls to participate.
The Girls of Steel also host robot demonstrations and other community outreach programs to attract girls to robotics and STEM fields, which is part of the reason why they won this year’s Comcast Media and Technology Award.
Yes, men still outnumber women 4 to 1 in engineering programs in the U.S. But that’s up from 20 to 1 in the 1970s. And with young women like this involved in robotics, I see more progress on the horizon.[About 30 of the nearly 3,000 active FRC teams are all-female. If you’re a member of one of them, or any other all-girl FIRST team, please leave a comment below and tell us a little about your team.
#6 Creativity – One of the rules of FRC competition is that if it isn’t explicitly against the rules, it’s allowed. That not only leaves room for creativity and innovation, but practically begs for it. Nowhere was that more evident than watching Texas FRC teams 148 from Greenville and 1296 from Rockwall. Each followed a similar design strategy. I watched in shock and dismay as each robot separated into two independent units like a Russian nesting doll opening up all by itself. One unit stacked totes from the feeder station while the other unit found a can to cap the stack with and deliver it to the scoring platform.
Nobody told these teams they weren’t allowed to split a slow process up into two parts and work them in parallel . . . so they did.
Einstein once famously said “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” These teams are showing the kind of outside-the-box thinking that will help the next generation solve the problems we’re creating for them now.
#5 Magnitude matters – There were no robotics competitions when I was in high school three decades ago. But since FIRST’s humble beginnings in 1992 with 28 teams and a few hundred participants, the programs have grown to over 400,000 students in dozens of countries around the world.
Sitting in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis (home of the St. Louis Rams), watching over 40,000 people cheer on these teams was nothing short of awe-inspiring. And it was encouraging to see thousands of some of the brightest young minds from around the world all in one place. When we stop producing kids like these, I’ll start worrying about tomorrow. But right now, I’m feeling like our future is in pretty good hands.
#4 Worthy heroes: I found it inspiring at two events this year to see teenagers line up by the dozen to get the autograph of a man who earned his fame and fortune with his brain instead of his brawn or his good looks (no offense, Dean Kamen).
At the FRC championship in St. Louis, they even named the eight competition fields after legends in the sciences – giants including Galileo, Newton, Archimedes, Einstein, George Washington Carver, Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, Grace Hopper, and Rachel Carson.
I think it’s fine to have a professional athlete or Hollywood looker in your set of personal heroes. But if these are the only people you idolize, I’d have to question your values. As evidenced above, one of the many things FIRST does for kids is to introduce them to a more worthy set of heroes to serve as role models for their life.
#3 Speed and agility – At the Central Illinois regional in Peoria, team 4028 mentor Rick Oliver watched the first few rounds of competition with wide eyes. One of the problems each team encountered with the feeder station was that totes tended to bounce around when falling through the chute and land in often unpredictable ways.
When he saw that some teams had found an innovative solution to that problem, he turned to one of Cincinnati’s Beak Squad team members and said, “We need a ramp!” A handful of team members and mentors immediately went to work, designing and fashioning a ramp from PVC pipe. In less than two hours they had a working ramp, just in time for their first match of the day.
This is the kind of ingenuity and resourcefulness FIRST teams demonstrate every day of build season all the way through competitions, and that employers will bend over backwards to hire when these young men and women are ready to enter the workforce.
#2 Smart is the new sexy – In many circles, the way a teenage girl gets the attention of a teenage boy is by wearing too little clothing and too much makeup. At a robotics competition, it’s done by appealing to his mind. Amid the shower of thousands of paper airplanes customarily thrown during the closing ceremonies at the World Championship in St. Louis, my son caught this airplane with the following message written on it: “I’m a girl who likes robots” along with her name and phone number.
Teenager tested. Father approved.
#1 Denis McBride of O’Fallon, Illinois. Denis is 7 years old and in the 2nd grade. We met at the Jr. FLL expo in St. Louis on Saturday. No, Denis isn’t on a Jr. FLL team. He’s not there to cheer on a sister or brother involved in any of the FIRST events. And his mom and dad aren’t mentors or officials or judges or announcers. In fact, as far as I can tell, Denis doesn’t have any connection to FIRST. And that’s exactly why meeting him was my #1 most inspiring FIRST moment in 2015.
When I met Denis, he was learning how to program a Lego crane winch to operate. His grandfather has been bringing him to these events since Denis was just 3 years old. Inspired by what he’s seen, Denis wants to start the very first Jr. Lego League team in his hometown. And I believe he will.
FIRST team members are the future of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And kids like Denis are the future of FIRST.
It’s been said that “we are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist…using technologies that haven’t been invented…in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”
Kids like Denis will be the ones solving those problems. Programs like FIRST are what will prepare them for that uncertain future. And after my first season as a fan of robotics, I have every confidence both will succeed.
My name is Paul Smith, and I am the proud father of Matthew Smith, an FRC team 4028 freshman and aspiring electrical engineer.
What were your most inspiring moments in FIRST 2015? Leave a comment below and let me know.
Paul Smith is a one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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