Inspiring Young Engineers with the Super Bowl of STEM
Michael Alba posted on April 27, 2020 |
A look at the FIRST Robotics Competition and the mentors that make it possible.
Siemens has sponsored this post.
The Cyborg Cats’ robot competing in the 2018 FIRST Robotics Competition. (Image courtesy of Cyborg Cats.)
The Cyborg Cats’ robot competing in the 2018 FIRST Robotics Competition. (Image courtesy of Cyborg Cats.)

The engineers of tomorrow don’t have to wait until tomorrow. During the international FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), 100,000 students compete to build industrial-sized robots that go head-to-head in various field games. The students, aged 14 to 18, are tasked with raising funds, developing a team brand and most importantly, designing a functional robot. It’s a crash course in engineering and project management.

To help keep that crash course on track, the student-led teams are guided by industry professionals who generously volunteer their time to support those budding engineers. One such mentor is Siemens NX developer Jeff Shultz. When he’s not working on NX’s routing team, Shultz teaches CAD and programming at Westminster Christian Academy just outside of St. Louis, Missouri. Since 2012, Shultz has been a mentor to Westminster’s FRC team, the Cyborg Cats.

We spoke with Shultz to learn about FIRST, the FRC and what it means to mentor aspiring engineers.

Dean Kamen’s Greatest Invention

Dean Kamen showing off his most popular invention, the Segway. (Image courtesy of Jared C. Benedict.)

Dean Kamen showing off his most popular invention, the Segway. (Image courtesy of Jared C. Benedict.)

FIRST, which stands for ‘For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,’ is a not-for-profit public charity that was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen. Kamen is best known for inventing the Segway personal transporter, but his many impressive inventions include a wearable drug infusion pump, a portable dialysis machine and an all-terrain electric wheelchair, among others. In spite of it all, FIRST is the invention Kamen is proudest of.

“It really is an invention because it was a different way to attack a fundamental social problem,” Kamen told The Economist in 2010. That problem is right there in the name: FIRST was created to get kids and teenagers inspired about STEM. FIRST hosts a number of robotics competitions for age groups ranging from 4 to 18 years old, but its primary program—what Kamen envisions as the Super Bowl of STEM—is the FIRST Robotics Competition.

The FIRST Robotics Competition

On the first Saturday of every January, FIRST broadcasts a video to students around the world that explains the specifics of that year’s FRC season. This year, 4,000 student teams watched the video, learned the goal and jumped straight into planning their robot for the 2020 competition. The challenge this year is called INFINITE RECHARGE.

“Typically, it's always some version of putting a ball or some sort of item somewhere,” Shultz explained. Though the specific objectives change each year, the student-designed robots are typically required to collect and place objects in a race against other robots.

The FIRST Robotics Competition INFINITE RECHARGE playing field. (Image courtesy of FIRST.)
The FIRST Robotics Competition INFINITE RECHARGE playing field. (Image courtesy of FIRST.)

After learning about their mission, FRC teams have six weeks to design, build and test their robots in advance of regional competitions. In past seasons, teams were required to halt all design changes after six weeks, with the next six weeks dedicated to regional competitions and, for the winning teams, a trip to one of two FIRST Championships in either Detroit (the Carson Division) or Houston (the Galileo Division).

“Anybody who's won a regional anywhere in the world qualifies to go to the big one that will crown a champion,” Shultz said.

To help even the playing field amongst teams with varying levels of funding, this year the FRC allows students to continue to refine their robot design right up until the Championship.

The Cyborg Cats

(Image courtesy of Cyborg Cats.)

(Image courtesy of Cyborg Cats.)

FRC team number 4256, the Cyborg Cats, was founded by students at Westminster Christian Academy in 2011. The Cyborg Cats received a rookie grant from Boeing and went on to compete in the 2012 FRC season. Though not heavily involved at the beginning, Shultz served as the team’s NX consultant—a fitting role, considering he single-handedly brought NX to Westminster when he took on the CAD teaching role.

“[Westminster] was looking for a CAD teacher years ago. I went to my manager and asked if he would allow me to do that. He said, ‘Yeah, as long as you use NX.’ I had no intention of using anything else, because that's what I'm working on,” Shultz recalled with a laugh.

In the 2012 FRC season, the Cyborg Cats used a technology grant to purchase a 3-axis CNC machine. Shultz was asked to become the local expert on the machine, and his involvement with the Cyborg Cats grew.

“We have since used NX CAM with the CNC machine to manufacture countless items on our robots,” Shultz said. “We have also developed relationships with machine shops in the area that have manufactured a number of our parts. A year or two ago, we purchased a 3D printer that uses carbon fiber filament. We design all of our parts using NX CAD. Aside from CAM, we have also used the drafting and motion simulation packages.”

The Cyborg Cats’ robot for the 2012 FRC Season. (Image courtesy of Cyborg Cats.)
The Cyborg Cats’ robot for the 2012 FRC Season. (Image courtesy of Cyborg Cats.)

The Cyborg Cats are now a popular draw for Westminster students interested in getting hands-on with STEM. The team holds anywhere from 70 to 110 students at a time, with efforts split across engineering, fundraising, branding and even a dedicated human resources department.

“Sometimes it gets the perception of a bunch of geeks building a robot,” Shultz said. “That is a big part of it, but it's really coming together and seeing how you can apply creativity and a little bit of craziness to try to get something done.”

“Cooperatition” and Gracious Professionalism

Woodie Flowers (1943 – 2019) at the 2006 FIRST Championship. (Image courtesy of Jake Ingman.)

Woodie Flowers (1943 – 2019) at the 2006 FIRST Championship. (Image courtesy of Jake Ingman.)

Though the FIRST Robotics Competition is nominally just that, the organization nurtures the spirit of what it calls “cooperatition,” a community effort to succeed not through victory, but through cooperating with and helping fellow teams. Another FRC mantra is “gracious professionalism,” coined by FRC cofounder Woodie Flowers, who sadly passed away last year.

“‘Gracious professionalism’ describes the FIRST spirit of encouraging high-quality, well-informed work in a manner that leaves everyone feeling valued. ‘Gracious professionalism’ seems to be a good descriptor for part of the ethos of FIRST. It is part of what makes FIRST different and wonderful,” Flowers wrote in his afterword to the 2008 book FIRST Robots: Rack 'n' Roll : Behind the Design.

In Shultz’s view, the spirit of gracious professionalism is alive and well in the FRC.

“You'll see members of one team go and help another team, especially a rookie team,” he said. “They're trying to help everybody else do better. You want to win, because that's the goal, but there's typically a lot of helping and cooperation going on in the pits.”

Mentoring Aspiring Engineers

The Cyborg Cats’ best FRC finish was in 2018, when the team made it to the semifinals of the Galileo Division FIRST Championship in Houston. However, Shultz considers the 2019 season to be the team’s best year. The Cyborg Cats made it to the regional finals, but ultimately lost to a very good opponent.

The Cyborg Cats are working hard this year to continue their momentum, and Shultz is “cautiously optimistic” about their 2020 robot as regional competitions begin. This season, Shultz has taken on a primary role of mentoring the programming team.

A Cyborg Cats mentor helping students with the robot for the 2016 season. (Image courtesy of Cyborg Cats.)
A Cyborg Cats mentor helping students with the robot for the 2016 season. (Image courtesy of Cyborg Cats.)

“Until last season, I was mainly working with CAD, CAM and the CNC machine. I am now mostly involved with the programming side of the team, although I still help with the other areas since my CAD class acts as a pipeline for our robotics CAD designers,” he said.

Shultz is the only Westminster staff member serving as a Cyborg Cats mentor, but he’s joined by about 20 industry professionals. Many of these are from Boeing, which sponsors several teams in the area, and others are former Cyborg Cats that have graduated and returned as junior mentors. The mentors are incredibly generous with their time, with some of them committing upwards of 40 hours per week during the busiest parts of the season.

As someone who’s been a mentor for almost a decade, Shultz considers it time well spent.

“My greatest reward when working with the students are the ‘a-ha’ moments—when their code makes the robot do what they want; when they are able to hold something that was created from something they designed in CAD; even the small victory of using a power tool effectively for the first time,” he said.

To learn more about the Cyborg Cats and the First Robotics Competition, visit the Cyborg Cats website. Siemens, a proud sponsor of the First Robotics Competition, provides teams with free access to its Solid Edge CAD platform along with training and other resources. To learn more about Solid Edge and Siemens’ role in the FRC, visit Siemens.com.

Endnote: A Sad Close to FRC 2020

With the ongoing global effort against COVID-19, FIRST has reluctantly suspended the current FRC season and cancelled both FIRST Championship events. However, on May 2nd FIRST will host the FIRST Virtual Showcase presented by Qualcomm to recognize the efforts of the FIRST community.

Here is the notice from FIRST President Larry Cohen, given on March 12, 2020, about the closure of the FRC season:

Dear friends, colleagues & partners,

It is with deep disappointment that I share an update on the immediate suspension of the current FIRST season and the cancellation of both Championship events. This decision has been made based on guidance from the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and state and local health officials, as well as the declaration of states of emergency across many states/countries, the ever-expanding travel restrictions for schools, and in light of developments over the past 24 hours.  The health and safety of our community is our top priority, so we have decided to suspend all season play across all Programs worldwide, effective immediately, including the cancellation of both FIRST Championship events. Please know that FIRST Championship registration fees will be refunded.

This difficult decision was grounded in FIRST’s commitment to put the health and safety of our community above all else. During this challenging time, we have been working closely with our program delivery partners (PDPs) and event organizers around the world to navigate and mitigate the risks to our community due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). As a result, many of our events in the United States and around the world have been canceled or postponed, including more than half of all future FIRST Robotics Competition events. We acknowledge and appreciate the thousands of teams, parents, mentors, coaches and volunteers who have poured their hearts and souls into this season, and we share your disappointment.

The mission of FIRST has always been to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators, and we continue to be deeply committed to this mission. We know that you will have questions, and we will provide answers in the following days and weeks as we navigate what has been an unprecedented time.

Sincerely,

Larry Cohen, President of FIRST



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