FIRST celebrated the finals of its 2017 Robotics Competition and Tech Challenge at the end of April, naming winners across numerous categories and encouraging students to stick with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and forge careers in industries crying out for STEM skills.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was established in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen, who is famed for the invention of the Segway, but has also invented many other devices, including portable insulin and dialysis machines and water purification systems. The mission of the international organization is to inspire young people to become science and technology leaders by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, create innovation, and foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.

Don Bossi, president of FIRST, explains: “Dean’s commitment is to inventions that make the world better, saver and healthier. In 1989, he saw kids getting good at sport, although the chances of going professional were slim. At the same time, kids were turning away from math and science, skills needed in industry. He understood sport was exciting and looked for a similar model that could be applied to math and science, and encourage young people to be innovative.”

The outcome of Kamen’s thinking was the not-for-profit organization FIRST, which held its first robotics competition in 1992 in a high school in Manchester, NH—the organization’s headquarters—and attracted 28 competitive teams. The program has since grown considerably and now includes four competitions:

  • FIRST Robotics Competition for students aged 14-18
  • FIRST Tech Challenge for students aged 12-18
  • FIRST LEGO League for students aged 9-14 (9-16 outside North America)
  • FIRST LEGO League Junior for students aged 6-10.

Each competition has a theme designed to inspire students to develop creative and innovative inventions. This year, the FIRST Robotics competition game was Steamworks, which required teams to build and program robots weighing up to 150 lbs. that could power airships for flight. The Tech Challenge, Velocity Vortex, required teams to build robots weighing up to 40 lbs. that could place balls into vortexes.

The FIRST LEGO League challenge, Animal Allies, took a more project-based approach, with students conducting research projects and building LEGO-based autonomous robots designed to improve how animals and humans learn from, interact with, and help one another. The LEGO League Junior competition, Creature Craze, used LEGO Mindstorms and WeDo 2.0 construction sets, research, critical thinking, and imagination to encourage students to learn about animals and explore their habitats.

FIRST is sponsored by corporate firms, many of them in the STEM sector, and receives some government funding, which is used to support projects in schools that cannot otherwise afford to take part in the program.

Since nearly 50,000 teams in 86 countries took part in this year’s competitions, qualifying events were held in 20 countries, and it was decided for the first time that there would be two world championships, one in Houston, TX, the other in St. Louis, MO. At the Houston event, Kamen explained, “This year, we added a second championship event. This is because we can’t contain the energy and excitement of the FIRST Championship in one city. In a world that is unwinding, it’s critical to develop more kids with the toolset, vision, and ability to work together to deal with difficult problems.”

The decision to run two championships was well-made, with the four-day Houston event hosting 15,000 students from around the world and being attended by nearly 30,000 people, including students, mentors, parents, volunteers, and sponsors. Similar numbers joined the St. Louis event.

The culmination of the championships saw winning team alliances, which are made of three or four teams after play-offs and compete in the finals, being honored in award categories from outright winners to engineering inspiration, creativity, entrepreneurship, industrial safety and team spirit. Judges’ awards include an honor for gracious professionalism.

Most of the winners were from the U.S., which had 275,000 participants in the competitions, but teams from other countries, with a total of 175,000 participants and including Switzerland, Slovenia, Spain, Northern Ireland, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Russia, Israel, Chile, Australia, Turkey, Mexico, Jordan, Brazil, Qatar, Alaska, Bolivia, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Lebanon, China, Panama, Egypt, and Hong Kong, also made it to the podium.

While 445,000 students participated in the FIRST programmed this year and about 8% of them went on to the world championships, Bossi says, “The events are competitive, but a huge part of our mission is outreach to get to students and schools that are underserved.”

One FIRST success story involves a homeless young man in Los Angeles. He joined a FIRST team in school, learned about electronics, and got an internship that helped him get an apartment for his family. He is now a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The imbalance between males and females in the STEM community is also on the agenda. Bossi says, “The split in FIRST participation is 70% male and 30% female, but we are working towards a 50/50 split, with female participation going up about 4% a year. We have an equality, diversity, and inclusion program to include all young people, particularly those who are underrepresented in the STEM workforce, such as black and Hispanic people.”

FIRST claims to be the leading global project engaging young people in STEM subjects, but is it fulfilling its mission of encouraging more young people into the sector? Bossi offers up a definitive “yes,” and points to a 36-month longitudinal study carried out and published by The Center for Youth and Communities at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in April 2017. A summary of the study states, “Follow-up data continues to show FIRST has a positive impact on participants in key STEM-related measures, including interest in STEM, involvement in STEM-related activities, STEM identity, STEM knowledge, and interest in STEM careers.”

It continues, “Among first-year college students, FIRST alumni report significantly higher interest in majoring in computer science, engineering, and robotics than comparison students and are 2.6 times more likely to take an engineering course.”

Looking forward, Bossi says FIRST will continue to increase student participation numbers, focus on inclusion and accessibility, and add more global partners, including colleges, universities, and corporations, to support and promote the program.

Topics for next year’s FIRST Tech Challenge, LEGO League, and LEGO League Junior competitions, which run over a year, will be announced in late August or early September. The subject of the FIRST Robotics competition will be announced on the first Saturday in January 2018, giving students just six weeks to design and build a robotic solution.

Sarah Underwood is a technology writer based in Teddington, U.K.

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