Robotics competition teaches the skills and mindset to be a great engineer

Robots are a fun way to introduce practical, hands-on engineering with visible results that keep budding engineers coming back for more. And with the right platform it can be a valuable experience into tools they'll use for future engineering careers. This is exactly what the international K-12 not-for-profit organization FIRST (www.usfirst.org) has set out to do.

A kids' sport for the brain

FIRST (an acronym of "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology"), founded by inventor Dean Kamen, has been fostering interest and participation in STEM for more than 25 years. The organization is split into four mentor-guided programs that offer competitions for students of different ages, from kindergarten to Grade 12, with a projected 400,000 participants in all programs in the 2015/16 competition year.

Participants compete in teams where they develop a strategy and build a robot using engineering principles including rapid prototyping and iterative design. They're also taught to respect, teach, and learn from fellow teammates and mentors, but still compete with a passion in a "Coopertition" environment.

Competitions are held in various arenas all over the U.S. and the world where teams complete in challenges to score points. For example, FIRST recently had a recycling theme for FIRST Competition, its high school program. Teams scored points by stacking items, capping the stacks with recycling containers, and disposing of objects representing litter.

Incorporating the latest technology

Many of the younger divisions use LEGO-based platforms and moving parts to construct their projects. But, for the first time in the 2015/16 season, the FIRST Tech Challenge teams (Grades 7-12) will use a Java-based platform and robot and driver-station controls powered by the Qualcomm (www.qualcomm.com) Snapdragon 410 processor (www.qualcomm.com/products/snapdragon/processors/410). Kamen believes the new Android and Java platforms will be powerful tools for FIRST participants.

"Android devices are everywhere," Kamen says. "The Android operating system dominates the mobile/tablet computing market with over 51 percent of the market. The Android platform, powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon processors, offers mobile computing power well above just about any other mobile platform out there. Most people use it for cellular communication only. FIRST Tech Challenge is tapping into that computing power for robotics."

Qualcomm's Director of Engineering Chad Sweet says using a common smartphone technology makes for a much lower barrier to entry than other educational robotics platforms.

"Most students have access to a smartphone these days, which makes the Snapdragon 410 processor-based Android platform ideal – students can simply take their phones out of their pockets and start programming for robots," Sweet says (See what devices use the processor here: www.qualcomm.com/products/snapdragon/devices). "In addition, this new system uses the Java programming language at its core, which is the same language high school students are using to learn programming, making it that much easier for students to start developing."

From kits to competition

FIRST Tech Challenge teams have a variety of options for building their robots. Rookie teams receive metal building sets that come with motors, gears, metal, batteries, and sensors, Kamen says. They also get two Android phone handsets and electronic interface modules that allow Android devices to talk to the sensors and motors. The switch in platform won't interrupt teams' building and progress, Kamen says, as they can use their existing equipment and simply replace the former communication technology with the new Snapdragon-powered devices and interface modules.

RoBowties is a well-performing five-student team based out of San Diego participating in the FIRST Tech Challenge. They've topped multiple competitions and competed in the 2014/15 World Championship in St. Louis as well as the Asia Pacific Invitational in Sydney, Australia. This globetrotting team's captain, Isabelle Ho, has been competing for four years now and is eager to try out the new Snapdragon-based system.

"I'm excited to try out the new technology," Ho says. "It will be a big change from what we've had, but it seems like once everybody gets the hang of it we won't have as many problems moving forward."

Through her time with FIRST and the FIRST Tech Challenge program, she's learned many things about engineering, from teamwork to screwing together parts to programming autonomous systems.

"The great thing about FIRST in general is the community we build through Gracious Professionalism," Ho says. "Every team is competing and learning. We all want to learn about each other's robots and we all speak the same language."

Industry support for future engineers

FIRST is supported by about 200 of the Fortune 500 companies as well as educational and professional institutions, foundations, and individuals who provide funding, mentorship, equipment, and volunteers. Colleges, universities, professional associations, and corporations also offer college scholarships to FIRST participants in Grade 12 ranging from $500 to covering a full four-year tuition.

Qualcomm has sponsored FIRST for more than eight years and finds FIRST to be a valuable program for developing engineers.

"We value FIRST and the work they are doing because they are devoted to helping young people discover and develop a passion for science, engineering, technology, and math," Sweet says. "As a technology company, we believe that by supporting STEM learning, and especially encouraging young people to pursue STEM in school and in their careers, we will empower a new generation of great innovators and inventors. Robotics is an exciting technology and FIRST is a great way to inspire new engineers and technology leaders."

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