It had all the trappings of an international youth sporting event: the arena stadium in St. Louis, MO; the 18,000 fanatically enthusiastic kids from 40 countries; the parents and coaches, who were still going strong by day three of the four-day event; the high-stakes tournament-style competition; and the inspiring message delivered by President Barack Obama.
While President Obama’s encouraging words were evocative of a school pep rally, these kids aren’t technically athletes—although the word “technical” is fitting—but that’s what makes the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Championship so special.
Founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen (inventor, entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for science and technology), FIRST is an international not-for-profit organization where K-12 students get experience in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) skills by building robots designed to complete specific tasks and challenges. The FIRST organization runs multiple competitions in a progression of programs for students of various ages:
- Junior FIRST LEGO League (Jr.FLL) - ages 6 to 9
- FIRST LEGO League (FLL) - ages 9 to 16
- FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) - 7th to 12th graders
- FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) - 9th to 12th graders
All told, more than 400,000 students, from more than 80 countries, participated in the 2014-2015 season—but with only 18,000 students qualifying for the championship, it’s clear that competition is tough.
In St. Louis, the FRC matches took center stage in a huge arena divided into eight “fields” where team alliances faced off. These matches were the culmination of months of hard work. Each year brings a new challenge for the FRC in the form of a game announced in January. Teams have only six weeks to design and build their robots, and then it’s on to local and regional qualifying matches, all leading up to the FIRST Championship held in late April.
One important thing to note is that these aren’t one-on-one matches. Three-team alliances are formed for each round, which means that a successful robot will be designed to cooperate as well as compete with other teams’ robots. This structure supports the core value of the FIRST program: Gracious Professionalism®the notion that rivalry and altruism should go hand in hand.
Gracious Professionalism is one of the many reasons that Qualcomm has been a longtime sponsor and supporter of the FIRST program. In the words of Qualcomm CTO, Matt Grob, supporting STEM education and programs like FIRST “helps us accomplish our mission, which is to connect the world. We’re looking for the best-quality employees. Here you’ve got a whole bunch of kids who are learning, not only science and math, but how to work together. Cooperation, teamwork, Gracious Professionalism–those are the skills that we seek.”
As a sponsor of FIRST, as well as a number of individual FIRST teams across their progression of programs, Qualcomm is helping to foster 21st-century skills in a community of students who will grow to be the inventors of incredible technologies we can’t even begin to imagine today. Quite a few companies and universities are well aware of this potential, as evidenced by the fact that, in addition to the many awards available to the teams, there are also more than $22M in scholarship opportunities.
Next year, teams competing in the FIRST Tech Challenge (grades 7-12/ages 12-18) will be building their robots on a new Android platform, which will run on smartphones powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 processors. This addition will “raise the bar of the technology,” says Grob, “It means [the students] will have a greater capability to innovate. Very sophisticated systems will now be very easy to use, and very easy to build with. Kids at the junior high and high school levels will be able to bring really tremendous capability to bear on the problems and puzzles of the game.”
Including smartphones in the kit of parts for next years’ FTC teams means that, for these students, an everyday object will suddenly be shown to be an amazing tool that they can use to create powerful robots. This will also lower a perceived barrier to entry for FTC. Kids who may have been intimidated by the technical learning curve, will instead be able to work with an object that they’re already intimately familiar with—the smartphone.
Congratulations to the FRC teams making up the winning 2015 FIRST Championship alliance:
We can’t wait to see what you build next year.
To learn more about FIRST and their programs, be sure to visit their website.
[Special thanks to Emily Nadler for her editorial contributions!]