Building Robots Builds Scientists

FIRST's Robotics Competition helps inspire middle and high school students to pursue careers in math and science

It's 6 p.m. on a chilly February night in New York City, and the Harlem Knights are racing to meet a deadline. The Knights are a group of about 30 kids participating in an after-school program at the Frederick Douglass Academy high school on 148th Street in Manhattan. Their task is to build a working robot as part of a program called For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology, or FIRST.

Founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST is trying to tackle what many educators and businesspeople call one of the most pressing educational challenges facing America: inspiring middle and high school students too consumed by pop culture and their digital devices—or scared their jobs will be shifted overseas—to pursue careers in technology and science.

Bridging the Gap

"As a math teacher I know that the U.S. is ranked 23rd in the world in math," says Joel Bianchi, one of the FIRST mentors helping the Harlem Knights. "It's shocking. Students can get into math and science here. They're engaged. FIRST could revolutionize the direction of math and science."

Bianchi and his co-mentor, Thomas Horan, say the genius of FIRST is that it brings science and technology alive for a generation of youngsters who otherwise might not be interested in engineering and computer programming. "Students are turned off sometimes because they see science as rigorous or boring," says Horan, 32, an engineer at ConEd who has been a FIRST mentor for seven years. "The connection isn't developed between the textbook and the real world. I try to bridge that gap."

Preparing for the Competition…and Life

The Knights are a few weeks away from the New York regional round of the FIRST Robotics Competition, and they have a lot of work to do. This year's competition gives students six weeks to build a robot out of a common set of parts. During the March competition at New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, 53 teams will face off in matches where they score points by using the robots to pick up and hang inflated tubes on a rack. "I have very high expectations," Horan says in the runup to regionals.

Inside the cramped lab at Frederick Douglass, clusters of students grapple with various parts of the robot. This is the first time many have put their hands on tools such as jigsaws and power drills, much less written computer software. One group is developing the code that will tell the robot how to move. "These are the controllers, they control the wheels," says Xavier Marrero, an eighth-grader who has learned through robotics how to program in languages EasyC and C++.

Another group fiddles with the motors and electronics. And two more are creating a Web site to feature the team's handiwork. "Before I didn't understand a Web page had all this coding," says Mamadou Barry, 16, an immigrant from Guinea who wants to be a computer engineer. Jennifer Christian, 18, says FIRST has reinforced her desire to be an electrical engineer. "It helps me a lot," she says. "Robotics shows you that what you learn in class can be applied to real life."

Fighting the Frightening Statistics

Real life—in the U.S.—is where Christian's talents are needed most. The nation is in danger of losing its technological leadership if it doesn't reverse dismal high school graduation rates and encourage careers in math and science, Microsoft (MSFT) Chairman Bill Gates said in congressional testimony Mar. 7. He backed the assertion with a startling array of statistics: Half of all African American and Hispanic ninth-graders will not earn a diploma in four years; the number of undergraduate engineering degrees awarded in the U.S. fell by about 17% between 1985 and 2004; and the percentage of college freshmen planning to major in computer science dropped by 70% between 2000 and 2005.

FIRST is one of the most effective ways to reverse the slide, say leaders from the education and business communities. Intel (INTC) also sponsors a competition aimed at identifying tomorrow's tech leaders (see, 12/5/05, "Science Grads, Where Are You?"). Yet while 1,700 students enter the Intel Science Talent Search, more than 32,000 students participate in FIRST. And many of the FIRST programs operate in inner-city environments where science programs are often given short shrift.

The Harlem Knights team is a case in point. Every member of the team, which draws students from Frederick Douglass and nearby Rice High School, is of minority background. And though Frederick Douglass is considered an excellent school, it does not have the resources to offer advanced classes in areas such as computer programming. "We can take all of the kids who never thought of science and technology and say you ought to be part of the future," says FIRST founder Kamen, whose inventions include the Segway motorized scooter.

Katherine Silkin, program manager for the Intel Science Talent Search, concedes that the Intel competition is geared toward students who have dreamed of being scientists since they were in grade school. "There is plenty of room in the pond for all kinds of programs," she says. "FIRST robotics is offering so many things to many students that may not have considered science, and that is terrific."

Kamen launched FIRST in the early 1990s to reverse declining U.S. math and science skills. Kamen believes the problem can be best solved by generating a greater passion for math and science, not just throwing more books and computers at kids. And the way to do that, he believes, is by making the field fun and competitive, like sports, and exposing kids to the Michael Jordans of engineering. "By putting kids with professional scientists and engineers we think we are creating relationships between kids and real serious role models," says Kamen. "We are going to change their aspirations."

Producing Promising Results

Kamen's vision is no starry-eyed dream. A 2005 Ford Foundation-funded study by Brandeis University found that, compared with a group of students with similar backgrounds and achievement, children who participate in FIRST are twice as likely to major in science and engineering and more than three times as likely to pursue a career in engineering. Marilyn Berenger, a Rice High School teacher helping mentor the Harlem Knights, says that 15 of the 18 members of her 2004 robotics team are now majoring in engineering. And FIRST is attracting kids who have never before expressed an interest in science or technology, she says.

From its beginning in a small high school gym in Nashua, N.H., FIRST has mushroomed into a juggernaut, drawing hundreds of teams from all 50 states and seven other countries, as well as 18,000 mentors and more than 2,000 corporate sponsors such as Boston Scientific (BSX), Motorola (MOT), and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ). At this year's finals, held Apr. 12-14, some 9,000 students will flock to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Kamen's goal is to get FIRST into each of the 25,000 or so U.S. high schools. It is an ambitious target, but FIRST is growing rapidly, and Kamen is as passionate as ever. FIRST is now in 1,300 high schools, up from 642 in 2002. "We are starting to become significant," Kamen says. "The only thing that will determine the standard of living, the quality of health care, and the security of our country is the relative competence of our technical community."

Learning into the Wee Hours

It's noon on Saturday, Feb. 17, three days before the teams must stop building their robots. A bunch of Knights have gathered in the school cafeteria to put the finishing touches on their machine and take it for a test drive. Horan surveys several students as they wrestle with the wires and relays of the robot, testing the Knights with questions about electricity and the physics of wires.

About an hour later, Marcus Withers, 17, strolls into the room. "I was here until 1 a.m. last night," Withers says. During the six-week build season, many of the Knights and their mentors can be found in the robotics lab several times a week, often until the wee hours.

The students finish their work and hook up the joysticks that control the robot's movement. Withers takes the robot for a spin. It rumbles quickly across the floor. "Very good," says school principal Dr. Gregory Hodge, who has entered the cafeteria with prospective students and their parents. Another student moves the robot's lifting mechanism up and down. But the air compressor that provides suction to grab onto the tubes is still not working well.

"They don't realize they are learning engineering," Hodge says later, out of their earshot. "We're kind of suckering them into it."

The Thrills of Competition

Fast-forward to Mar. 17, when the Harlem Knights and 52 other regional teams stream into the Javits Center for the New York-area showdown. The auditorium is split into a competitive arena and a pit area where teams tweak their robots between matches: Think World Wide Wrestling Federation meets NASCAR. The Knights prepare for their first match, scheduled for 10:37 a.m. They are grouped with a team from Bay Shore, N.Y., and a team from Newark, N.J., and face off against an alliance of three other teams. The Center buzzes with anticipation.

"Drivers, please come and claim your machines," bellows the announcer. Knights' member Tatiana Robinson, who has been picked to operate the lifting mechanism, carries the joysticks to the arena. Withers and a teammate haul the robot onto the playing field, slapping each other's hands like baseball players after a good play. The contestants line up behind the starting line. Marcus shakes his arms and slaps his thigh, burning some prematch jitters. As he hoped, he has been picked to drive the robot.

"Drivers, step forward, take control of your robots," the announcer says. And off they go. The piercing screams of hundreds of fans reverberate through the arena. The Gear Heads from Bay Shore quickly place a tube on the rack. The Harlem Knights robot tangles with SystemMetric, a robot from Great Britain. Then trouble strikes: The Knights' robot loses power after about 45 seconds. Withers and Robinson stand by helplessly, unable to do anything while other robots whirl around the floor, picking up tubes and placing them on the rack.

"It doesn't look like the Harlem Knights seem to be moving much," says the announcer. "I've just been informed that the Harlem Knights have lost power." The silver lining: Thanks to their teammates, the match ends in an 8 to 8 tie.

After the match, Horan and the Knights scramble to the pit, fix their machine, and get the power running. In the second match, the Knights stack a tube onto a rack, and prevail, 16 to 2. But later in the day, new problems with the suction device and lifting mechanism belie a serious engineering error. Other teams have built mechanical lifting mechanisms that more easily pick up the tubes.

At the end of day one, the Knights end up with two wins, two losses, and two ties. Not bad, but not good enough to place them among the top seeds. A teacher works late into the night in a last-ditch effort to improve the lifting gear, but he doesn't have enough time. The next day, the Knights win one match and lose another. They finish 23rd out of the 53 teams. "We were kind of disappointed we did not rank higher," Withers says. "In the past we ranked second and eighth." But thanks to their moxie and track record, and rules that allow for pairings in the competition's later stages, the Knights are picked by one of the top eight teams to compete in the regional finals.

Good Sports…and Future Mentors

In the finals, the Knights and their teammates lose the first two matches, and are eliminated from the competition. Thirteen other New York-area teams will head to the championship in Atlanta. There, featured speakers will include Steve Chen and Chad Hurley of YouTube, recently purchased by Google (GOOG), whose founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page headlined the last two years' finals.

The Knights, however, do not come away empty-handed: The team wins the Johnson & Johnson Sportsmanship Award. It makes Horan proud, and he tells the kids so. "The whole point of the competition is not just competing but also how you interact with other people," he says. "The hallmark is gracious professionalism, and not walking around beating your chest."

Meanwhile, Withers is preparing to enroll in the New York Institute of Technology in the fall. But he plans to come back and mentor a robotics team. "I am giving back to my community," he says. "I want to let the other students have as good a time as I did."

Click here to see a slide show of events from the New York regional competition.

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