FIRST is Still Number One among Students

Victoria is a senior high school student from southern Michigan who plans to attend a two-year biblical college in the fall. Afterwards, she is looking forward to raising a family, she said. Christine is a sophomore from northern Virginia. She is not yet sure what college she will enroll in, but is certain that her future is in technology.

Victoria is friendly but reserved. Christine is outgoing and talkative. On paper, they do not have a lot in common. Yet the indefatigable passion they share for FIRST brought them together as friends.

Victoria and Christine were ambassadors at the FIRST Championship event held in Detroit, Mich., during April, where they spent almost two hours giving me a personal tour. As we walked past showcases, the competition floor, and pit areas, they enthusiastically described the nuances of the various competitions, where more than 20,000 came to test their robots or cheer for their teams.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), is an organization founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

Since then it has grown into a movement of impressive scope and influence. In the 2017-2018 season, 533,000 students on 61,000 teams participated from 86 countries. It drew 250,000 volunteers, including mentors, coaches, and judges. And it awarded more than $70 million in scholarships from 200 donors.

FIRST calls its program, “The hardest fun you’ll ever have.” Student participants have six weeks to turn a kit of supplies into an industrial-size robot that performs a specific challenge, like balancing on a beam or flinging discs into a goal. The competition celebrates its participants while raising the profile of engineering as a profession and a powerful way of thinking.

ASME has supported FIRST since the competitions began. Hundreds of ASME members throughout the world serve as volunteer mentors and judges, and even sit on FIRST’s board.

Behind it all is Kamen, an ASME member and recipient of the ASME Medal and the Hoover Medal, which ASME administers. Kamen is best known as the inventor and entrepreneur who commercialized the first drug infusion pump, the Segway self-balancing human transporter, and the iBOT mobility system. With FIRST, he describes himself as a “shameless beggar” of support. It’s working.

I had not attended the FIRST finals since the program’s early years. It was impressive then, but the energy and excitement on the floor now are overwhelming.

Yet, while the competitions take center stage, FIRST’s real focus remains on bringing students together through team building and community. By engaging K–12 students in exciting, mentor-guided programs, FIRST nurtures STEM skills, inspires innovation, and fosters the social skills needed for a well-rounded life.

It also builds relationships between people who might not otherwise meet, like Victoria and Christine, or like the teams in the pit who help their competitors repair their robots. These friendships, forged through a common interest in technology, make FIRST an important movement that’s worthy of praise.

All those relationships may not last forever, but what will last a lifetime is the experience we all share being part of the energizing FIRST community.

John G. Falcioni, Editor-in-Chief, Mechanical Engineering Magazine
Reprinted from Mechanical Engineering magazine.