FIRST Robotics Competition Engages Minnesota High School Students in Engineering & Business

by Peter Beacom

From March 31 – April 2nd, teams from high schools across the state (and beyond) will converge at the University of Minnesota for the FIRST Robotics Competition.

FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — was founded by Dean Kamen over twenty years ago with the admirable goal “To create a world where science and technology are celebrated… where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes.”

A kickoff event for Minnesota’s 2011 competition was held at Northrup Memorial Auditorium at the University of Minnesota in January, when rules were established and component kits provided, from which teams were to design and construct robots over the next six weeks.  The local event draws over 150 unique groups predominantly from Minnesota, but also across the mid-west, including: Illinois, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.

This year’s competition involves using machines to collect inflated tubes of various shapes and assembling them into a depiction of the FIRST logo.  Additionally, a pole climbing robot race is also being held, for which the students are allowed to work on throughout the season.

Although the task and exact environment of the competition changes from year to year, certain aspects remain the same. Each team fields one robot that is part of a combined group of three robots facing three other teams and their respective inventions. The competition begins with an autonomous portion during which the robots run without guidance from human operators. Following the autonomous portion, the robots are eventually controlled by student operators.

Captain Chris Dale was involved with the Como Park and Saint Paul Central robotics team of ten. Three students engaged primarily in marketing activities to find sponsors, which over the past three years has been supported by grants from 3M and NASA. The team also has two General Dynamics employees serving as mentors that Dale characterized as “really helpful.”

As the team’s sole programmer, he said the experience of learning and digesting robotics API’s, “demystified many aspects of programming.” Dale is now an undergrad at the University of Minnesota studying computer science and economics. Additionally, he returned to his high school this year as a mentor to his old team. “My experiences with FIRST solidified computer science as a career choice and convinced me I didn’t want to be a mechanical engineering major,” he says of the influence.

Mark Lawrence is the coach of the Edina robotics team, also known as The Green Machine. They competed at the Lake Superior Regional competition on March 10- 12 and are looking forward to the upcoming competition at the University of Minnesota. The Edina team has thirty members that consists of six programmers, eight builders, and two pilots. The rest of the students engage in marketing activities and web development. This team has succeeded in obtaining sponsorship from Medtronic, Ecolab, and Boston Scientific over the years.

Lawrence has coached the Edina team since 2006 and does so because the competition has “a profound effect on increasing student interest in science and technology.” The Edina teams tracks statistics on its alumni and approximately 90% go on to pursue a career in science and engineering. An added bonus that Lawrence points out is there are $15 million worth of scholarships available to college students studying science and engineering who participated in FIRST during high school. The team’s pole climbing robot can currently reach the top in four seconds.

The Lake Superior FIRST regional competition occurred earlier this month, and on March 31,  the teams from 10,000 Lakes Regional and North Star Regional divisions will begin their own three day competitions. At the end, top performers from each region will be selected to advance to the championship competition in Saint Louis.