First Robotics is a name you may or may not have heard in the past, but it’s definitely one you need to have on your radar. It’s a competitive, nationwide program that works with school districts to inspire students to get engaged with robotics, engineering, and technical sciences.
The competitions start with a Jr. Lego League and graduate through a number of leagues that end with high school students designing, programming, and building functional robots. Robotics challenges run the better course of the school year and culminate here in the New York area with a massive first regional competition hosted at Hofstra University. For students and educators, this is a big deal with some major student developed technology on display. The 2016 competition will be this upcoming weekend.
On Long Island, School-Business Partnerships of Long Island (SBPLI) works with FESTO and a number of companies to run and host Robotics Competitions between districts and in perpetration for the yearly competition. I caught up with Debra Winter, Assistant Superintendent of Student and Community Services for the Longwood Central School District, to learn a little more.
About 16 years ago the superintendent of Longwood had approached Winter, who was then a technology teacher, with a proposal to raise funds for a robotics program. She had some exposure to robotics, but had to learn about First firsthand (pun intended).
Like many districts across the country, robotics, technology, and forensics activities don’t receive much district or state funding. Winter’s first foray into getting programs running involved pitching the idea to a number of local businesses and working to secure $5,000 for Longwood to compete. Her success in funding the endeavor led to a career-long love of how robotics can change the morale and focus for a broad range of students.
Contrary to what you might think, robotics attracted students from almost every walk of life. Kids who couldn’t find their niche in after school or sports activities gravitated towards robotics. This led to a diverse group of kids that ranged from the hearing impaired, to jocks, to geeks and artsy types being able to find a passion within the process that is developing a team and a robot to compete.
As the initial Robotics program kicked off at Longwood, winter brought her then 6-year-old son, a first grader, to watch some of the competition. He said then, “Someday I’m going to be out there competing too, Mom.”
Nick at age 6
First engages kids early with Jr. Lego League starting at the 6 – 9-year-old level and First Lego League at the 9 through 12-year-old level. It’s innovative and interesting, and allows kids to develop skills and hone their minds while learning tech. Plus, there’s the unsaid cool factor of starting out at an early age with Legos.
In 6th grade, Nick entered First Lego League – which allows kids to use Lego Mindstorms sets to design and develop a robot that solves a problem posed to students at the beginning of the year. All of the challenges are mission-related to the world; for example, this year’s challenge is trash, or rather how to leverage robots to better manage refuse.
Nick’s HS Entry
These challenges help foster relationships between parents and children, and as Winter points out “in many cases helps build father – son relationships, as there’s now something for the dads to participate in.” She also notes that many parents end up staying with the program.
Students reaching out to the industry have also led to things like the CEO of Taconic Medical dedicating resources to figure out how to have one of their medical robots communicate with a student’s robotic project.
Kids that go through the program end up wanting to give back, get involved and become more gregarious in the process. Winter’s son competed through high school and is now being approached by recruiters from some of the unexpected places – financial firms looking for graduates who can be team players, as well as tech companies. Needless to say, this kind of experience and team capability is also something colleges look for.
Winter said that “while one-third of the students in these programs are girls, they could use more” and that the biggest thing that First and SBPLI are doing is “inspiring students to go into those fields where we have shortages.”
The U.S. Army is coming this year with their combat robot and Hofstra will have the da Vinci robot on Display. If you have a chance – get out to Hofstra this weekend and if you’re a company reading this – maybe think about giving to your local First Chapter.
Technology is a great tool for bringing us together – First can help the next generation to build the future.
Mr. Sultan is a Big Data and Counterterrorism Strategist who has worked with U.S. PeaceTech Lab, The Economist, and other corporate and government clients over the past decade. He is also a conservative Muslim pundit who is actively working to build interfaith dialogue and prevent radicalization. He has previously been in the top 30 of Top Conservatives on Twitter and is continually searching for the most perfect hamburger in America.