During my trip to Boston last week for the National Science Teacher's Association conference (more on that later) I totally lucked out in also catching the FIRST Robotics League Northeastern Regional Championships. If you haven't been to one, you simply must go. As remarkable as this sounds, there is almost certainly one in your area. It was AWESOME. There were more than 7,000 people in attendance in the Agganis Arena at Boston University to see the real deal, professionally produced and run, very well-organized, with pro announcers, cameramen and lighting.
Over forty teams of high school students were running robots that they built from nothing inside of 6 weeks to accomplish a VERY complicated challenge. They were so FANTASTIC that I am going to run out of superlatives before getting to the end of this post. The very idea that this organization has grown since 1992 to reach more than 13,000 schools across the US, and that there are 41 REGIONAL competitions before the upcoming late April finals in Atlanta is just incredible. Better yet, FIRST has clearly been very successful in perpetuating and growing a model that is self-sustaining, with many teams having competed for several years, with former FIRST team members returning to mentor their old team or going on to start new ones.
I managed to arrive just in time to watch the contest start up for the final day with a performance by the Blue Man Group, followed by the grand entrance of Woodie Flowers, the legendary MIT professor who founded FIRST, and before that was the originator of the famous MIT 2.70 and 6.270 robotics contests. Check out how these people LOVE him as he enters the arena using an interesting MIT spin-out technology called the Atlas Ascender (a self-contained box that allows rapid ascent as well descent.)
The day began with the quarter-finals matches and I stayed through the final. The designs were quite varied, with the older more experienced teams (you could tell from the low team numbers below 100 that were granted years ago) clearly demonstrating that years of experience really helps in refining robust approaches to complicated problems. That said, even the rookie teams showed great creativity and incredible dedication and teamwork. Check out these photos of several of the robots.
The matches were real nail-biters with cheering and chants that rivaled any football game I had ever attended (except maybe the Chelsea Tottenham match in London). To see this leve of excitement and adulation usually reserved for sports and entertainment celebrities unleashed on students for engineering and innovation just warmed my heart. Something has been made right in the world.
Everyone I spoke with loved the experience and couldn't even imagine failing to participate next year. And as Steve Wozniak, one of the FIRST luminaries said, "There are lots of prizes and awards, and only one of them is for winning." Their hearts and minds are certainly in the right place.
Find out about your local FIRST events and sign up however you can, as a participant. mentor, coach, parent, whatever. You won't regret it.
After collecting several technical degrees at Cornell and MIT and a stint building spacecraft sensors and new computer architectures at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I am now a serial entrepreneur. MicroDisplay was the first company I started, spun out of my grad school dissertation on Integrated Optoelectronic Computers while at MIT's AI lab. MobiTV is looking to be a little more of a break-out after we invented the technology, built the infrastructure, and licensed the content to deliver live television over wireless networks to mobile phones, PDAs, and now Computers. Besides that, I am the founding Chairman of the Westminster Institute for Science Education [WISE]
You can check out a more serious bio here.