A Slam Dunk for Science and Engineering

At first glance, it could be a rock concert—an arena filled with young people in costumes, loud music, and hundreds of cheering fans. Look closer at center stage, and you see robots of various shapes and sizes hurling basketballs trying to score points. From the sidelines, teams of high school students, dressed in wacky costumes—some as mad scientists—use computers and joysticks to manipulate and operate the robots.

It’s all part of the Minnesota Regional FIRST Robotics Competitions held every spring at the University of Minnesota Mariucci and Williams Arenas. The annual event—a sort of “varsity sport for the mind” if you will—was conceived by FIRST Robotics Competition founder Dean Kamen, an inventor, entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for science and technology.

Through FIRST (which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”)—now a worldwide organization—Kamen is determined to help young people discover the excitement and rewards of science and technology. He believes he can reprioritize society to value inventors the way it values sports heroes.

Helping to put that mission into action is the University of Minnesota’s GOFIRST (Group Organization for FIRST) student group, which was founded in December 2009 with six students and four high school robotics teams. Last year, the group’s 30 members mentored 11 Minnesota high school teams.

Dedicated to the fields we love

Renee photo 120The members of GOFIRST support Kamen’s vision by primarily helping high school teams develop a successful robot for the annual FIRST Robotics Competition. They also volunteer at regional events and conduct outreach activities for students in Minnesota. They are passionate about science and technology, and they want to encourage and inspire high school students to pursue education and careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects.

“We’re helping young people discover science and engineering is not just for nerds. It can be fun, exciting, and a cool thing,” said Bryan Herbst, current president of the group and College of Science and Engineering student majoring in computer science.

Although GOFIRST is open to any University of Minnesota student, most of its members are students in the College of Science and Engineering, who participated in FIRST as high school students. Now as college students, they have a dedication to the program nearly impossible to match.

“We’re helping young people discover science and engineering is not just for nerds. It can be fun, exciting, and a cool thing.”

“I got involved with FIRST after attending the 2005 Championship FIRST Event as an eighth grader. That’s where I met my future high school robotics team. My involvement in the program caused my parents to become volunteers. Through the organization, I gained so many skills—confidence, communication, and leadership,” said Renee Becker, a recent College of Liberal Arts graduate in scientific and technical communications who served in a leadership role last year and was heavily involved as a student.

Becker, who says she was never much interested in robot design and operation, is an enthusiastic supporter of the program and mentored several teams on the competition’s written requirements and team management aspects. She also spent a lot of time leading FIRST workshops, including one session where Girl Scouts could earn a merit badge.

“There is no mandatory amount of time required to participate in GOFIRST. It has a tendency to take on a life of its own,” Becker said.

“Typically, you figure how much you plan to get involved, and then double that amount. It draws you in, and I’ve become pretty passionate about it,” she added.

Herbst advised at least two high school teams this past spring, one of which was from Irondale High School in Mounds View, Minn. With his computer science knowledge, he was able to help with the team’s website and robot programming.

“Volunteering can take up a lot of time, but school always comes first. We’re able to do quite a bit of advising by phone and through email. We also use Skype a lot,” Herbst said.

Collaborative teamwork

Arena photo In addition to the robotics, each high school team is responsible for designing its own website and creating an optional animation film. There is also a fundraising component to the competition. Students must raise close to $12,000 before a high school team can even think of competing. The kit of parts alone costs $6,000.

At its core, the FIRST Robotics Competition is an annual engineering contest, with a different objective every year. Each year, student teams design and build a 120-pound robot from a kit of parts made up of motors, batteries, a control system, and a mix of automation components, but no instructions. The teams are given only six weeks to complete the task, which begins in January.

During the process, the students learn about engineering, budgeting, time management, cooperation, and other life skills. “It’s a little like running a small business if you look at all the components involved. Yet, the kids have a lot of fun as they build a robot, learn how to operate it, and get involved in so many ways, all as a team,” Herbst said. “For me, I was able to come to the University as a freshman with a lot of technical knowledge that helped me in several classes.”

“This is real-world engineering for students, and the kids get totally absorbed in the project,” said Stephanie Hornung, director of programs for GOFIRST and College of Science and Engineering student majoring in mechanical engineering. “It’s also a great opportunity to reach out to kids on a much larger scale.”

This past year’s robotics challenge was called “Rebound Rumble,” and it pitted two alliances of three teams each in a game that resembled basketball. The goal was to score as many baskets—arranged at varying heights—in two minutes and 15 seconds. The higher the hoop in which the basketball is scored, the more points the group receives. Groups were awarded bonus points if they balanced on bridges at the end of the match.

“This is real-world engineering for students, and the kids get totally absorbed in the project. It’s also a great opportunity to reach out to kids on a much larger scale.”

The competition isn’t just about smashing robots into each other, even though there is a significant amount of “vigorous interaction” involved. Rather it is about such things as “gracious professionalism,” communications, cooperation, and the acquisition, use, and sharing of knowledge.

Inspiring the next generation

“At the heart of the competition is a collaborative approach—it’s a community and there are no trade secrets,” Herbst said. “We learn from each other and help each other. As a former FIRST high school participant, I’m able to share what I know and be a role model to the kids I mentor. It’s empowering to know I’m possibly helping to motivate the next generation of scientists.”

According to a survey conducted by Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., students who participated in the program are more than three times as likely to major in engineering, and more than twice as likely to pursue a career in science and technology.

Similarly, as the FIRST Robotics program has grown, so have the number of CSE students who participated in the program as high school students. In 2008, 12 CSE freshman students had participated in FIRST when they were in high school and this fall, that number had grown to 76.

In addition, PTC (Parametric Technology Corporation) sponsors two annual scholarships of $5,000 per year available to two students enrolled in the College of Science and Engineering. The scholarships are renewable for a total of $20,000 over four years. CSE students who participated for at least one full season on a FIRST Robotics Competition team in high school are eligible to apply for the scholarship.

FIRST is the reason I decided to major in mechanical engineering,” said Hornung. “I was always good at math and science as a high school student in Edina, Minn., but I didn’t have a clear career path in mind. Participating in FIRST showed me the mechanical side of things. I love what I’m studying and knowing that engineering is a viable career choice for me is exciting.”

“Building robots is not the only thing we’re doing. We are inspiring the future roboticists, engineers, educators, and entrepreneurs. Even if we’ve inspired only a few, we’ve done our job,” Herbst added.

FIRST Competition takes a village of volunteers

Gil Huie photo It takes a large and diverse group of volunteers to make the FIRST Robotics Competition successful; mentors and coaches guide the kids on their teams, event volunteers make the hundreds of seasonal events possible, and field volunteers continue to help the organization grow.

Among those dedicated volunteers is Gil Huie, a machinist for the Department of Civil Engineering. For the past five years, he has spent countless hours helping FIRST prepare for the annual competition.

“I enjoy helping the kids. It’s fun to see the interesting robot designs they create,” Huie said. In a very literal way, Huie’s work with FIRST demonstrates his drive to give his best to tool and die making, volunteering, and education.

Huie became involved with FIRST in 2007 when Steven Crouch, Dean of the College of Science and Engineering, asked him to help the college host a regional edition of the national FIRST Robotics Competition. “He asked if I would handle some of the technical aspects by building prototypes of the scoring device, in addition to serving as the machine shop liaison for the local teams,” Huie said.

The machinist happily accepted the challenge. He has helped every year since, except in 2009, when a battle with cancer forced him to sit out the competition.

Huie’s contributions have not gone unrecognized. During the 2010 FIRST Robotics Competition, Dean Crouch asked Huie to attend an “impromptu meeting” at Williams Arena. Upon arrival, he heard the announcer saying, “we have someone who has been here since our program began. Here to present the award to Gil Huie for ‘volunteer of the year’ is Dean Kamen!”

Stunned by the news, he walked out onto the court, received a handshake of thanks and the award from Kamen, the founder of FIRST. “I was so surprised. I knew there were a lot of other people who deserved it just as much as I did,” Huie said.

In addition, his volunteerism has drawn attention from the University’s highest leaders. In 2008, Huie received the President’s Award for Outstanding Service, the highest award given to a staff or faculty member.

Huie credits his love of precision engineering, dedication to helping others, and earnest interest in sharing his knowledge and skills with others. “You don’t have to be the best, but be diligent, do your job, and be the person people can count on. Then you’ll receive your rewards,” Huie said.