The first robots I recall ever interacting with when I was young were Transformers. I suppose, if you were being REALLY generous, you could refer to them as semi-educational toys since each was a mini-puzzle that only kids younger than 13 could figure out. In fact, if I were this clever at 8-years-old, I might have convinced my parents to want to buy me more. But then, all I would have to show for it would be a box full of forgotten plastic robots that transformed into cars I could now sell on eBay.
Except for Grimlock. He’ll always stay with me. Because Robot Dinosaur.
But there was a different group of transforming robots that I wish I had discovered in my high school days. Instead of buying them, you built them with a group of your peers. Instead of transforming into cars, they would transform your life.
Recently I attended the FIRST Championships for the second year in a row, representing Mouser Electronics as a sponsor. Once again, I was blown away by the accomplishments of determined young minds. At a distance, the FIRST program may look like a junior robotics sports league, and that is a fair observation. But, there’s more than meets the eye.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a global organization founded by Dean Kamen and Woodie Flowers in 1989, whose goal is to help foster young minds to develop technical knowledge and abstract problem solving skills to make the world a better place. Based on what I’ve seen, and some of the kids I’ve spoken to, it works.
Take Tim Balz, for instance. Without his transformative time in the FIRST program, Tim may have kept making C’s and would not have discovered his passion for engineering. Now, he is President and Founder of Freedom Chairs, a 501C3 non-profit, plus interns for an R&D firm and is named as an inventor on an all-terrain wheelchair patent. Tim found the tools to find success in his life doing something he loves, but he also uses these skills to help others in his community.
And if you want to talk about transformations, there’s Freya Wilhelm of Manhattan. Freya faced many challenges, substance abuse, relationship problems, a lack of direction. She was unsure of who she was as a person. That’s when a friend introduced her to FIRST. Being creatively and intellectually stimulated by the program and learning interpersonal skills, Freya knew that if she wanted to successfully contribute to her team’s success, she would need to make some major life changes. Now she is the captain of her team and looking forward to a future in mechanical engineering.
These are each amazing stories on their own, and they are not the only ones out there. All over the globe, youths are learning valuable skills and the values of cooperation and competition through FIRST, one truly transforming robot at a time.
Check out some photos from our trip to the FIRST Championships in St. Louis below, and let us know in the comments if you have any inspiring FIRST or STEM story of your own!
Erik is the Social and Multi-Media Manager at Mouser Electronics. When he’s not tweeting about what’s next in the world of engineering for @MouserElec or uploading videos to YouTube, he can typically be found nose-down in a good Sci-Fi book. You can see what he’s up to on Twitter: @ErikSmith80
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