Bobak Ferdowsi liked to build robots in high school. Now he is an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and helps guide the Curiosity rover over the Martian landscape. Ferdowsi, who became known for the Mohawk-style haircut he received to commemorate the rover’s landing, is also one of thousands of mentors for FIRST, an annual program that gives students the chance to design and build robots that compete against robots from other teams.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway. The organization’s goal is to inspire young people to pursue careers in science, engineering, math and technology by giving them hands-on experience in those fields.
“The ultimate goal is to make sure that we have a pathway that allows kids to get interested and engaged with the hard sciences and engineering,” said Don Brobst, a FIRST senior mentor in the Washington, D.C. area.
FIRST offers four different robotics programs for different age groups. The FIRST Lego League programs, in which teams build robots using Lego Mindstorms kits, are for upper elementary and middle school students. The FIRST Tech Challenge is a fast-growing program for high school students. The FIRST Robotics Challenge is the capstone program for high schoolers. FRC teams build large, complex robots that compete in challenges that combine sports with technology.
Each FRC team has a little over six weeks to design, build, program, and test a robot to complete a specific challenge. For the 2013 season, each team must build a robot that can fling discs through goals on a playing field during matches that last a little over two minutes. While building its robot, each team must work within a specific set of rules and with limited resources. By the end of the season, students know how to design, build, and test a complex machine that fulfills a precise set of requirements.
“Those are the same skills that you’re going to need when you go out to be on a project in the real world,” Brobst said.
The students learn how to use tools, but they also learn public speaking, time management, and teamwork?skills that are useful in any career. Bill Duncan, regional director for FIRST in Maryland, said that in many ways, FIRST teams operate like small businesses.
“You’ll find, working with FIRST, you have a whole range of skills that are needed to help the teams and help the programs operate,” Duncan said. “It’s not just for engineers.”
FIRST not only gives students the skills they need to succeed in college?it can help pay for it, too. Many colleges, universities, and corporations offer scholarships to students who participate in FIRST, with more than $16 million in scholarships available this year. According to a 2005 study conducted by Brandeis University, students who participate in FIRST are “significantly more likely to attend college” and “twice as likely to major in science and engineering.”
Every FIRST team must also raise money to fund its robot. Sources for grants include school boards, educational foundations, and some government agencies, including NASA. Many private companies, including most of the Fortune 500, also sponsor teams, Duncan said.
Brobst said fund-raising is important, but the main challenge for new teams is finding a professional mentor who can offer his or her time and skills.
“To be successful, you need professional mentors that help the kids through the process,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they’re building the robot. But they’re helping the kids through that process of designing the robot, fabricating it, testing.”
Duncan said adults can get involved in FIRST by volunteering at an event, mentoring an existing team, or helping to start a new team in their community. Those interested in becoming a FIRST volunteer, coach, or mentor should visit the FIRST website to find teams in their area. It is a good idea to attend a FIRST event to watch teams in action and talk to team members and mentors. Brobst and Duncan pointed out that an engineering background isn’t necessary?a team needs mentors who can handle a range of logistical tasks like making travel arrangements, creating T-shirts, or ordering pizza on long work nights.
“I cannot think of anybody with any career background that cannot be a successful mentor on a team,” Brobst said. “And I can’t think of any team that has too many mentors.”
If you would like to know more about the FIRST program, or how to get involved, you can visit the program’s website by clicking here. The website has everything you need to know about enrolling in the program, different competitions, options for volunteering, and even scholarship opportunities that are available through the program.