Writing America’s Future – Robot Style

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The Chesapeake Regional “Rebound Rumble” FIRST Robotics Competition recently took place at the Baltimore Convention Center in Maryland. More than 2,000 students, teachers, family members, mentors and fans witnessed 63 high school teams competing with a goal of advancing to the World Championship in St. Louis.

With the combined intensity, action, sound and excitement of one-third rock concert, one-third sports competition and one-third monster truck rally, this exciting event showcased young American engineering ingenuity and excellence — not to mention many of the brightest of our next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. As elimination rounds gave way to seeded quarter-finals, semi-finals and the final match, the teams’ defensive and offensive competitive strategies became as important as the designs and implementations of the robots themselves.

FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The charitable organization’s mission statement is to “inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.” In each year’s FIRST Robotics Competition, high school students work with their technical mentors to design, build, program, debug and improve robots over a six-week period according to that year’s challenge. This season’s game, Rebound Rumble, was nothing less than a three-on-three basketball game, with the added climax of multiple robots attempting to balance on midcourt bridges at the end of the game. Awards for Gracious Professionalism and “Coopertition” stand alongside those for Engineering Excellence, Industrial Design, Entrepreneurship, Quality, Innovation in Control, etc., to help promote FIRST values of teamwork and collaboration among and across the student engineering teams.

Why are initiatives such as the FIRST Robotics Competition so important? Space News addresses a diverse aerospace community that includes space exploration, Earth observation, commercial spaceflight and related technologies. Our enterprise stands on a fragile foundation whose pillars include national and economic security, technological innovation, and our present and future work force. In 2005, the influential National Academies report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future” found that stagnant scientific education was imperiling American economic leadership. The updated report released in 2010 found that “our nation’s outlook has worsened. … America’s ability to compete for quality jobs in the global economy continues to deteriorate, and the nation needs a sustained investment in education and basic research to spur innovation and keep its competitive position from slipping further.”

High-technology aerospace firms dedicate resources to creating a greater awareness and appreciation of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) among young people. We understand that in order to inspire students, we need to engage them when they are young, support them during the critical middle school years and continue to build on that support throughout their academic lives. We aspire to help students from middle school through high school and college remain interested in STEM fields and, by extension, ensure the continued strength of the American work force. Many aerospace and technology organizations, large and small, are FIRST national, regional and team sponsors. Surely it is within the realm of possibility for many other organizations to provide similar support. Of note, J.C. Penney Co. sponsored over 800 high school robotics teams nationwide in 2011, and “plans to sponsor a FIRST team in every jcpenney community.”

The benefit is not just “pie-in-the-sky.” America’s technological and competitive future is yet to be written, and this success story will be created by the students competing on FIRST robotics teams and participating in parallel STEM activities sponsored, mentored and organized by our aerospace community. The FIRST Robotics Competition provides a forum that helps formulate careers across the STEM disciplines, while instilling an ethos of teamwork, collaboration and sportsmanship. If every individual and organization in the aerospace industry takes a hand to help inspire our own next-generation work force, the future of America and American aerospace may indeed be one of the greatest stories ever told.

 

Philip Ardanuy is principal engineering fellow and solution architect at Raytheon Co. and president emeritus of the Maryland Space Business Roundtable. He served as a judge and invited speaker at the recent FIRST Robotics Competition. In 2011, Raytheon mentored and sponsored 41 teams from Alabama, California, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Virginia in the competition. The Maryland Space Business Roundtable was the sponsor of four.