Getting kids involved in STEM is best done by getting kids involved. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a nonprofit organization with a mission to engage the next generation of STEM professionals through interactive design challenges. FIRST offers a progression of programs for ages 6-18 and provides a continuously developing platform for deepening the STEM experience and maintaining the excitement as the students grow.
In the spirit of an ever-changing technological landscape, FIRST is rolling out a new Snapdragon-based Android platform that will allow kids to program and control their robots using Java in the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) for grades 7-12. To learn more about the program and this newest offering, we’ll turn to Don Bossi, president of FIRST.
To start off, give us a little background on how FIRST originated and what you’re up to currently.
In 1989, inventor Dean Kamen founded the not-for-profit FIRST with an ambitious vision: to transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated, where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders. To achieve this vision, FIRST inspires kids to pursue science, engineering and technology careers through exciting, hands-on robotics engineering challenges. Through these challenges, we encourage students to explore new
discoveries and inventions, work together to solve real-world problems and prepare to impact our nation’s economic vitality as they enter the workforce.
Today, FIRST is the oldest and largest student robotics program in the world with about 400,000 students from around the world engaging in our Progression of Programs. We make available more than $22 million in college scholarships from nearly 200 providers, including colleges, universities, companies and associations. Approximately two of every five Fortune 500 companies support our mission. Many FIRST sponsors such as BAE Systems customize professional internships for FIRST students, aiming to hire them as employees once they graduate college.
FIRST has age-appropriate programs covering kids from their earliest school years all the way through high school. How important is it to get students engaged early and to provide them room to grow?
FIRST offers a Progression of Programs for kids ages 6-18 that encourage innovation at each stage of a child’s development. The FIRST experience starts in kindergarten with Junior FIRST LEGO League (ages 6-9),which allows kids to explore today’s scientific challenges, then present their research using a LEGO® model with motorized parts. This program prepares students for the next progression: FIRST LEGO League (ages 9-14). Using LEGO® MINDSTORMS® technologies and LEGO Education materials, children work alongside adult Coaches to design, build, and program autonomous robots and create a solution to a problem as part of their research project.
As children progress from one FIRST program to the next, their robotics challenges become more advanced. Students in FIRST Tech Challenge (ages 12-18) learn to think like engineers and develop an engineering notebook to document their progress in building and designing a robot. Mentored by professional engineers, teams develop strategies, build robots from a reusable kit of parts, and compete head to head.
Finally, there’s our varsity Sport for the Mind™ – FIRST Robotics Competition (ages 14-18). We issue an annual robotics engineering challenge to teams to build and design a robot that can perform a complex set of tasks in competition. Students have six weeks to build a robot – with no instructions. Teams compete head to head with 120-pound robots of their own design in intense, sporting competitions.
Teams in all four of our programs compete in regional FIRST competitions held around the country and around the world, vying for a chance to attend FIRST Championship, our annual, three-day celebration of students’ accomplishments.
What makes your programs so attractive to students?
FIRST programs offer the excitement of sports with the rigors of science and technology in its challenges. Students discover and develop the excitement of solving real-world engineering design challenges alongside their peers and professional mentors. Students are encouraged to keep trying and trying -- and even failing -- until they finally succeed in the robotics challenges. In the process, they can also develop self-confidence, communication and leadership skills needed to be successful in school and in the workforce.
In the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), students design, build and program their robots for competition. How were they programming their robots before, and what fundamental differences will the Snapdragon/Android pairing make?
In past years, teams chose from LabVIEW or RobotC. LabVIEW is an icon based language and RobotC is a text based language around C programming. In the new Snapdragon/Android based system, teams will also have an icon-based option via FIRST Tech Challenge App Inventor using a Blockly style interface. They can also use Java, via Android Studio, as a text-based option. Both options will allow teams to develop Android Apps that run on the super-fast Snapdragon/Android platform. FIRST Tech Challenge teams will become App developers while still in high school. We’re also excited that students will be able to augment and apply Java, the most popular high school programming language.
How will using Java affect the experience during the competition and during their future education and careers?
Java is the most popular language taught in high school, and is also the native language used in Android development, the most popular mobile operating system on the planet. This gives FIRST Tech Challenge students a clear advantage as they complete their Java work in high school, position themselves for college, and even get them into App development. Who knows, maybe this will help them pay for college through developing Apps for themselves or employers. At a minimum these skills are in great demand now, and will be for the foreseeable future.
The new programming setup will support existing sensors and electronics. Will it allow for any new technologies to be incorporated? Will it make it easier to upgrade and expand in the future?
We developed the new platform to accept current teams’ LEGO sensors, motors, batteries, gears and complete robot kits. To make the transition, all they need are two Android devices and two electronic modules. Teams can also buy a module that accepts other non-LEGO sensors, expanding their options. This will make it easier for teams to acquire all types of sensors in the future – including sensors already built into Android devices. We’re looking at some cool challenges to implement into our games over the next few years. Our Game Design Committee is thrilled – and we’ll have to “up our game” to build these new capabilities into future games.
Do you think this experience will change the way these students view mobile technology?
It most definitely will. Today most of us take for granted the incredible power we carry around in our pocket, all the while depending on these devices for a wider and wider range of services. Part of the beauty of this platform change is the fact that virtually no one is intimidated by this technology. The new FIRST Tech Challenge platform means that just about everyone is already walking around with a robot controller in their pocket. FIRST and Qualcomm have worked together, with many others, to bring this power to robotics. We think this will forever change the way they look at and leverage mobile technology.
Is there anything else we should know about the new technology and upcoming season? How can people find out more about the FIRST opportunities in their area?
FIRST is excited about the upcoming season. Registration is open now http://www.usfirst.org/roboticsprograms/ftc/start-a-team and our game announcement will be made September 12th at noon. At that time teams around the world will see this year’s game. Kickoff events will be held around the world. You can find ones near you here: http://www.usfirst.org/roboticsprograms/ftc/game. We invite everyone to check out FIRST Tech Challenge and get involved – start a team, be a mentor, become a sponsor. Help us change the world by inspiring the next generation of technologists, programmers, engineers and scientists!
Top Image: FIRST, an international K-12 not-for-profit organization founded by inventor Dean Kamen, partnered with Qualcomm to offer a Java-Based Android Platform for students competing in FIRST Tech Challenge. Students will use the platform to program their robots this fall for the annual FIRST Tech Challenge competition season. To start a FIRST Tech Challenge team, visit: http://www.usfirst.org/roboticsprograms/ftc/start-a-team
Bottom Image: Students who participate in the FIRST Tech Challenge 2015-16 season will be using Java-based Android Platform powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 Processor. Qualcomm is a FIRST Strategic Partner. To start a FIRST Tech Challenge team, visit: http://www.usfirst.org/roboticsprograms/ftc/start-a-team. Photo by Adriana M. Groisman.