Walking along the riverfront of Detroit one Wednesday morning in April, I was overtaken by a group of teenage boys dressed head to toe in fluorescent pink suits. About 10 minutes later, I found myself holding the door for a young girl carrying a kitted-out toolbox. This was not the Detroit that I had imagined. Last month, the city played host to FIRST’s World Championship along with Houston; collectively bringing together 76,000 people from 74 countries to compete robots at an extraordinary scale.
Detroit, home of the automotive industry, is on the up – and the state of Michigan is heavily investing in FIRST’s local student teams in recognition of the fact that the robotics skills they develop are the best preparation possible for becoming the engineers, scientists and technologists of tomorrow.
The power of FIRST goes way beyond robotics programs. The dry elevator pitch simply doesn’t do it justice, though; the global community that FIRST has created is truly life-changing. One teacher I met described to me how their student was a selective mute before joining the school’s FIRST team. The confidence the student gained through working with their team to build a robot that could operate autonomously, work with other robots and shun obstacles, helped them to overcome this. This story is not unique; I met two student ambassadors who had both become involved with FIRST ‘because their friends were doing it’, without really believing they had much to offer by way of technical skills. Several years later, both are aspiring engineers. Racula, a sixteen year old from Romania, is leaning towards software, whilst Aashay, a nineteen year old from the US, wants to become a biomedical engineer. As for Aashay’s opinion, when asked what is the best thing about FIRST: “I love being part of a community of innovators, creators and inventors, where everyone is inspiring each other and supporting each other’s growth in STEM”.
Through working in teams, FIRST students learn everything from project management and team working to taking an idea from concept to completion. It really is about so much more than robots. As Dean Kamer, Founder of FIRST says; “we’re not using kids to build robots – we’re using robots to build kids”. This is reflected by the care that FIRST takes to ensure that each season’s challenge is not only fun, but also educates young people about the wider challenges that science at large can help to solve. The 2020 season will be powered by the Star Wars: Force for Change philanthropic initiative, and Mark Hamill himself was beamed on a screen to thousands of kids at the Championship Closing Ceremonies. He delivered a powerful message, explaining that “as our population grows, we too must grow intelligently and plan for prosperity, caring for our environment, harnessing the energy around us and transforming technology with simple, problem-solving concepts into practical solutions”.
More than half a million students participate in one of FIRST’s four programs; FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), FIRST Lego League and FIRST Lego League Junior. Student teams are supported by a network of more than 225,000 volunteer mentors, many of whom are alumni of FIRST teams themselves.
Take Michael Ray. Michael is an Applications Engineer in Arm’s Internet of Things Services Group and has been involved with FIRST for 13 years: “for 4 years, I competed alongside Hall of Fame and World Champion calibre students who eventually would become astrophysicists, doctors, and engineers”. Michael was so inspired by his experience that, after graduating and moving to Austin, he set up a local FRC team which he now mentors. That team supports a further eight FTC teams. Asked about what drew him to mentoring, Michael explained that, “through coaching, I get to see FIRST’s effect on young students every day and how all four levels of FIRST prepare students for their future careers”.
The industry connection is a powerful mechanism within the FIRST community, linking students to professionals in a way that fosters meaningful relationships. The heavyweight names of the science and technology industries are passionate supporters of FIRST, recognizing that the STEM pipeline needs significant investment. For example, in the UK alone, tech companies are growing at more than double the rate of the UK economy at 4.5% a year, according to Tech Nation’s 2018 report, but 89% of STEM businesses struggle to recruit. Cassie McIntyre, Director of Corporate Partnerships at FIRST, explained to me that, “as a global education non-profit, FIRST has been partnering with industry and corporate leaders like Arm and leveraging their employees’ expertise to inspire young people for more than 30 years to explore science, technology, engineering and maths fields, and empowering them to be the next generation of innovators and leaders.”
In recent years, Arm has formed a deep connection with FIRST. Through our employee community engagement program, Team Arm, as well as people in our US, European and Asia offices, have been volunteering as mentors, judges and also at events. For the past 12 months, FIRST and Arm have been working closely to build a strategy that directly supports robotics teams, students and communities. Our goal is to enrich and inspire underserved students to pursue careers in STEM fields and make life-long connections with mentors, coaches, and peers.
Next season, Arm will become the global sponsor of FIRST Tech Challenge’s ‘Control Award’, which recognizes teams that innovatively apply sensor technology in their robot’s control system to solve game challenges and overcome obstacles – both autonomously and in teleoperated modes. As technologies like autonomous vehicles and Internet of Things become increasingly pervasive, the understanding and application of sensor technology within the broader context of physical computing is a practical skill needed by industry today, and the demand for it will only grow in future.
Dipti Vachani (Senior Vice President and General Manager of Automotive and Embedded), sponsor of Arm's partnership with FIRST, said: "We are delighted to be scaling up our partnership with FIRST for the coming season. We are experiencing massive transformation in the scope of how technology is being deployed, and it is more important than ever that we invest in the engineers of the future. Diversity is key; we want every young person involved with FIRST, whatever their gender, race or socioeconomic background, to be afforded the same opportunities."
Our Control Award sponsorship will be complemented by a new grant fund open to Arm employees involved with FIRST teams, with priority funding for underserved and underrepresented teams. In the UK, the Arm School Program (ASP) is also supporting FIRST Tech Challenge UK, which successfully launched in 2018 and has ambitious plans for increasing schools' participation in robotics.
As part of Arm Education, ASP’s mission is to empower all learners with the opportunity to develop the interest, skills and knowledge that enable a lifetime of engagement in STEM. The Arm School Program delivers this by working with its partners, often drawn from the Arm partner ecosystem, and schools in enabling positive, evidence-based improvements in teaching and learning. With a shared focus on Project-Based Learning, it was a natural fit for ASP to work with FIRST's team of educators, providing guidance on the development and digital delivery of curriculum-linked teaching and learning resources to make the FIRST Tech challenge more accessible to schools. Ed Cervantes-Watson, CEO of FIRST Tech Challenge UK, commented that “the ability to drive the talent pipeline using content co-created with Arm, empowering young people using technology imagined by Arm and inspired by Arm employees is truly unique”.
For me, the moment that the power of FIRST really hit home was when I came across a girl showing off her team’s robot. It stood out amidst the hundreds of other machines at the championship, in virtue of the fact that it was being controlled by a goldfish. Emmie, a tenth grade high school student, was excited to explain how their team had programmed a webcam to determine the robot’s movement by only recognizing the color orange against the black backdrop of the tank. Whichever direction the goldfish swam, the wheels of the robot followed.
This example of innovation reminded me of a story about a FIRST team that had featured on US news a few months ago: FRC team #2987, Rogue Robotics, built a wheelchair for a two year old boy with a rare genetic condition. It was given to the family for free, saving them a $20,000 bill, which their insurance couldn’t cover.
FIRST has two central philosophies; ‘Coopertition’ and ‘Gracious Professionalism’. The latter is defined as “A way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community”.
We are no stranger to these sentiments at Arm, where we are encouraged to exemplify the core beliefs of ‘passion for progress’, ‘we, not I’, and ‘be your brilliant self’. The students in FIRST’s community are true innovators, solving complex problems through creativity to make the world a better place. Skills like these sit front-and-centre in solving the world’s most complex challenges, set out by the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, such as global health and climate change. In years to come, we hope that FIRST students might seek their next challenge at Arm, where they can join us in driving forward what technology can make possible, in order to address the critical needs of everyone, everywhere.
Discover more about volunteering with FIRST below.
Volunteer with FIRST