Mar 04 2015

Rise of the Robots: STEM-Fueled Competitions Gaining Traction Nationwide

Robotics competitions bring STEM to life for students.

There’s a robotics movement under way at schools across the country, and it’s aimed squarely at developing a passion for STEM education in the kids who need it the most.

Building robots is a sport for the mind, and despite being unorthodox, it’s become an officially recognized high school sport in two states, with more states set to follow.

The organization leading this movement — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) — was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, the man behind the Segway. FIRST hosts robotics competitions, in which students create programmable robots to carry out tasks.

These include the FIRST Robotics Challenge (FRC), the organization’s flagship program; the FIRST Tech Challenge, a lower-cost alternative to the FRC; and FIRST Lego League, the most popular challenge, in which students create programmable robots built from LEGO blocks.

Pep Rallies for Robotics

STEM is experiencing renewed interest nationwide, and the rise of FIRST robotics competitions at schools have given way to official recognition in some states.

In 2012, Minnesota became the first state to recognize robotics competitions as a sport. Arizona became the second in December, and Connecticut and Texas are headed in that direction, says FIRST President Don Bossi.

“For kids, it’s just huge. They see the soccer team having pep rallies — well, now there’s pep rallies for robotics,” says Bossi.

Credit: Adrianna Grossman

Along with that recognition comes the rights and privileges afforded to other official school sports: access to buses, and stipends to hire coaches for the teams.

One Arizona school’s robotics team took the STEM spotlight after their underdog success story was the subject of a feature article in Wired, in 2005, which became the basis for a feature film — Spare Parts — in 2014.

At TCEA 2015, Fredi Lajvardi, team lead mentor for Carl Hayden Community High School, in Phoenix, Ariz., shared how his high school students overcame the odds to beat college-level teams, such as MIT, in a national robotics competition. Many of those victories happened at FIRST competitions.

Bossi says the success at Carl Hayden High School is a perfect example of the horizon-broadening possibilities that STEM-based competitions bring to the table.

“If you give them the opportunity and set high expectations, and they’re supported by their school, community and industry, it's absolutely phenomenal what kids can accomplish,” he says. “I think the world gains in potential by helping these kids find this passion in them at a very early age.”

FIRST Aims for Diversity in STEM Challenges

FIRST made a name for itself by hosting competitions, but there’s a larger goal in mind for the organization and the future of STEM, according to Bossi.

“We use the robotics platform as an appealing platform for kids. But it’s really about creating more opportunities for kids in the future,” Bossi says. “Our overarching mission is: ‘How can we expand access to [STEM] programs for kids of all backgrounds?’”

The lack of girls and minorities in STEM programs has become a barrier to wider acceptance. FIRST isn’t alone in this diversity struggle. Technology companies such as Google and Microsoft also have been attempting to bridge that divide. In 2014, Google released the results of a companywide diversity survey, showing that women made up just 17 percent of its tech workforce.

The numbers are a bit better for FIRST competitions, Bossi says: Between 26 to 35 percent of participants in the competitions are female. But that’s still not good enough. According to Bossi, the makeup of the participants should reflect the population in the communities where the competitions occur.

Beyond Robotics, FIRST Looks to Art

Bossi also sees a future for FIRST, beyond the robotics competitions. Computer coding competitions, which have taken off at some schools and universities, aren’t out of the question. FIRST officials are also looking into other avenues, such as incorporating more elements of STEAM — STEM + art.

“We’re in about 15 to 20 percent of schools now, so we certainly haven’t saturated the market. Robotics isn’t appealing for everyone,” he says. “Kids are more interested in learning when they understand why it’s important. We give them a challenge that they’re interested in, and suddenly they want to learn the math.

"I see us as the perfect complement to the traditional classroom environment. It’s bringing STEM to life for these kids,” says Bossi.

Adrianna Grossman

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