What is FIRST anyway?

First Robotics

So what is this FIRST thing anyway? If you’re reading this, chances are good you want to know. FIRST stands for, “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”

That’s great, but FIRST is so much more than a clever name. Its vision, stated by founder Dean Kamen, is:

“To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”

FIRST—quite simply—wants to change the world, and they have a plan for doing it. FIRST doesn’t just talk to students about why they should want to major in science and engineering-related fields. It shows them through fun, hands-on learning experiences side-by-side with professional mentors.

Currently, FIRST has four programs for school age students: Junior FIRST Lego League (JFLL), FIRST Lego League (FLL), FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), and FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), of which FIRST Team 172 is a part. In 2009, the four FIRST programs involved 196,000 students age 6-18 making 16,374 robots.

FIRST starts young. Kids ages six to nine can participate in the Junior FIRST Lego League, the youngest program in which kids can compete. In this program, students research an assigned real-world topic, like climate change, nanotechnology, or biomedical engineering.

After some research, the kids build a model to show what they have learned out of Lego blocks. The model has limited size and resources, just like the real world, and must fit certain criteria outlined by each year’s challenge.

JFLL participants also create a “Show Me!” poster to tell what they have learned. This showcases more information about their research, with pictures, writing, or even objects attached. The process of building a model and creating a poster helps JFLL participants to develop problem solving and teamwork skills, along with an appreciation with STEM related topics. For more information about JFLL, click here.

But once they’ve graduated from JFLL, students are far from done with their FIRST experience. FIRST Lego League allows kids age 9-14 (or 9-16 outside of the US and Canada) to deepen their knowledge of and enthusiasm for science and technology. The FLL program has some similarities to the JFLL program, but deepens and intensifies their scope. In FLL, students both explore a real-world topic or problem and work on a Lego-based robot to play a game solving that problem.

As in JFLL, FIRST Lego League participants must research a real-world topic—this year, it’s biomedical engineering. After learning about the field in general, teams focus in on a particular aspect and create a presentation of five minutes or less that describes various aspects of what they learned during the season.

Students also work throughout the season to make a Lego robot that will fulfill certain challenges to earn points. The challenges differ every year and are related to the topic of the year, but each year the teams have only a few minutes to earn as many points as possible. Students learn about design by building their robot and programming with the Mindstorms program. At the end of the season, they bring all their work together for an exciting competition. For more information, click here.

Students age 14-18 can choose between two programs—FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition. Both are played in a sports-style competition, with multiple robots and teams on the game field at a time.

However, there are also some significant differences. FTC robots are significantly smaller, for one thing. And FTC team size is limited to ten or less—for comparison, Team 172 has nearly 50 student members. The materials allowed are also different, but the spirit of the competition is the same for both. For information about FTC, click here.

FRC is sometimes referred to as the “Varsity Sport for the Mind.” It’s an apt description. The oldest of the four programs, FRC includes 52,000 students in about 2,100 teams. During a high-adrenaline six-week season from January to March, high school students and professional mentors build a robot to play a sports-style game, different every year. The game generally involves three elements: a short autonomous period at the beginning, during which robots get an opportunity to score on their own, a game play period of about two minutes where students control the robot, and an end period in which robots try to complete another task for more points. In early March, teams convene and compete in alliances of three against another alliance. Competitions are known for their high excitement—and noise. For more information about FRC in particular, click here.

FIRST means competition. But it also means more than competition. One thing that many students note during the season and at competition is the air of sportsmanship and cooperation that pervades FIRST events. Well, FIRST has a name for that. It’s called Gracious Professionalism.

Gracious Professionalism means that, while teams certainly want to win, they want to do it fairly. It means that teams regularly help each other—from teams in the same region cooperating to practice, to teams at competition lending each other parts and a helping hand. It means cheering, yes, but positively—teams respect and encourage each other even as they duke it out on the field. This attitude, combined with excitement for science and engineering, is really what FIRST is all about.

For more information about FIRST programs, scholarships, and events, please visit www.usfirst.org

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