Monday, January 27, 2014

A Year of FIRST(s)

12:11 AM
This year I have been working with Self Enhancement Inc. and the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods office at Jefferson High School to add FIRST Tech Challenge robotics to their STEAM programming. In our first year of building and programming competition-ready robots at SEI Academy middle school and Jefferson High the learning curve has been steep, but it has been an awesome experience.
Prototyping at Jefferson
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an international organization with the mission to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders. Through its FIRST Tech Challenge, FIRST offers aspiring engineers and scientists not just hands-on experience with design, engineering, and computer programming, but a unique opportunity to apply their brainpower to team competitions complete with cheering crowds and high-stakes tournaments.

I was impressed by the goals of FIRST, but I was skeptical that the actual competitions would live up to the hype. After going out for Jefferson's first scrimmage last weekend I am happy to report that the reality of FTC outshines the PR.

FTC arena + team
At the practice scrimmage organized by powerhouse FIRST team E=MC Squirreled, we were the first to arrive and find an entire hall of Liberty High School arrayed with folding conference tables, with an official 18x18 FTC arena in the adjacent rotunda. We set up our pit next to the arena and over the next two hours I was amazed to see over 13 teams and well over 100 spectators fill the space with a buzz of anticipation and last-minute testing, debate, and tweaking.

In the pit between matches
And that was just the lead-up to the matches - once the robots entered the arena the energy reached a new level. Teams and their families and friends crowded around the arena to watch the competition. The audience "ooh-ed" and "aah-ed" at the robotic feats and cheered as they racked up points dunking blocks in moving crates and doing pull-ups feet above the field. It truly felt more like a crosstown rival basketball game than a science fair. It was electrifying and I realized then and there the power of FIRST and FTC.

Qualifying tournament at Tigard High School
It has been great to go through the engineering design process with this group of young people. Each of them have the same spark of scientific interest and initiative that brought me (and probably most of my colleagues) to Maseeh College. I see my job as fanning that flame into a fire that will burn until they join (or surpass) our ranks, and FIRST contributes immeasurably to that cause with the energy and excitement of FTC. Please check us out at competition and see for yourself February 22nd at Hillsboro High School!
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