FIRST Up: A Robotics Competition That Teaches Real World Engineering Skills

Greg Burnham describes why the FIRST competition is an excellent training ground for developing practical STEM skills.

Picking up the phone, a bright, young voice spirits across space. Greg Burnham is on the line, and his voice exudes a youthful and exuberant character.

Burnham, a teacher with 17 years of experience currently serving in the Allen Texas Independent School District, is the Engineering, Robotics and Automation lead for his school, and its about to become crystal clear why his tone is so upbeat.

Aside from teaching the fundamentals of STEM, he’s also one of the school district’s FIRST Robotics team coaches, and the machines that he’s helped his kids create are something to behold. 

Bowser in action at the FIRST Competition. Making a robot that can stack boxes up on an elevated scale is harder than you’d think. (Image courtesy of Grant Butsumyo.)

Bowser in action at the FIRST Competition. Making a robot that can stack boxes up on an elevated scale is harder than you’d think. (Image courtesy of Grant Butsumyo.)

Allen, Tex. is a small suburb situated north of Dallas. The school itself is a massive enterprise with some 4,900 kids passing through its halls on a daily basis. While most of the school’s students have typical high school ambitions, some 40 to 60 students each year sign up to build a robot fit for the test of the FIRST Robotics competition.

What’s FIRST?

For those who aren’t in the STEM know, the FIRST Robotics Competition is one of the premiere events of the applied STEM school year. Some of the country’s brightest young engineering minds gather to test whether their robot designs can complete an obstacle and skills course, gathering points as more difficult and niche accomplishments are completed by their creations. What makes the event even more interesting is that every team is given a set of kit parts and constraints for industry standard parts and materials, as well as a set of goals that will need to be accomplished on the FIRST stage—a standardized playing field (as shown below).

Over the course of six weeks, the FIRST teams create CAD models for their designs, build their robots from the ground up, and hopefully have enough time to test how their robots work in the real world. Once that six-week timeframe is up, the robot is “bagged and tagged”—sealed in a clear bag—and the students can’t touch it until the day of the competition.

That’s a pretty tight deadline for a student-led team, particularly when you consider that robotics is just one of the many subjects that a high school student has on their mind, day in and day out.

And that’s just the beginning of the FIRST challenge. After the design phase students move on to the actual competition.

Bowser, Years in Development and Only Getting

On the floor of a spacious auditorium, Burnham’s students confront the obstacle course they’ve been designing their robot to conquer. The game consists of a three-on-three “coopertition” or cooperative competition, where teams are randomly aligned in qualifying rounds and the best eight teams choose two more teams to compete with in play-off rounds. With the pressure of their parents’ stares and judges watching intently, alongside a team of referees, who call fouls and evaluate fair play, the student’s let their robot loose hoping that their design will meet and best the course’s challenges. 

One of Burnham's students using Solid Edge to create Bowser's unique end effector/manipulator. It would be a critical component of the robot's design. (Image courtesy of Grant Butsumyo.)

One of Burnham’s students using Solid Edge to create Bowser’s unique end effector/manipulator. It would be a critical component of the robot’s design. (Image courtesy of Grant Butsumyo.)

Of course, I had to know, what kind of robots have Burnham’s students designed?

Burnham was excited to tell me.

Burnham’s students’ 2018 robot is named Bowser, and its a relatively tall ‘bot. Sporting a solid square base and a single upright wall, Bowser was built to delicately, and accurately deposit boxes atop one of the competition’s biggest obstacles, a balancing scale, bounded by plexiglass set atop a platform.

To reach the scale and deposit a box, Bowser was designed with a four-bar arm with a unique end effector/manipulator that serves as the robot’s “hand”. What makes this end effector so effective, according to Burnham, is that it is simple, light and very easy to replicate and repair when damaged. And, oh how it was damaged.

“Bowser was involved in a number of damaging collisions during the eight competition events we attended,” Burnham said. “But, due to our team’s excellent design work, the effector could be quickly removed, replaced and repaired.”

When asked how the team’s effector design was well-engineered Burnham, mentioned that CAD played a big role in delivering a reliable model of the students’ bot before construction work began.

“Siemens’ Solid Edge made building Bowser much easier. Not only were the modeling tools easy and intuitive to work with, but Siemens provided excellent tutorials that could bring students up to speed with the toolset that Solid Edge provides,” Burnham stated. “Solid Edge tutorials are excellent because they’re short, maybe two minutes, and you learn what you need to know. For student’s that’s a perfect amount of time for their level of concentration.”

Burnham added that the students got great personal support from the company when they ran into issues that came up due to the school district’s older computers.

The real-world manifestation of Burnham's students’ hard work. A manipulator that was up to the task of completing a FIRST competition obstacle course. (Image courtesy of Grant Butsumyo.)

The real-world manifestation of Burnham’s students’ hard work. A manipulator that was up to the task of completing a FIRST competition obstacle course. (Image courtesy of Grant Butsumyo.)

While CAD may be at the heart of Bowser’s successful design, the robot wouldn’t exist without the creativity and dedication that Burnham’s students have for robotics. Even with the best enabling technologies, the development of student creativity and ingenuity is what these challenges are all about. It wasn’t the tools that made the manipulator, but the students using those tools, working in concert that touched on something unique.

The key to Bowser’s manipulator lay in the wheels that rest at the end of the effector. Powered by two motors linked to the wheels via a chain drive, Bowser was able to snatch up boxes, hold them in tension and release them atop the course’s scale with the effector’s spinning wheels.

That’s a successful robot.

Winning Isn’t Everything

As Bowser’s design can attest, Burnham and his students have built a number of competitive robots for the FIRST competition over the course of the last four years, but claiming top honors hasn’t been the primary focus of Burnham’s curriculum. According to Burnham, success teaches you less than failure.

“It’s actually the stuff that fails that matters the most.” Said Burnham. “It’s the missed deadlines. It’s the design faults. That’s a really big part of learning what it means to be a designer and engineer.”

On it’s face, that might seem counterintuitive when you’re talking about a competition. But FIRST is more than just a robotics competition; it’s an applied educational experience. For many of Burnham’s students, the FIRST competition is a multi-year experience that allows them to build their engineering skills and refine their eye for design, two skills that are critical in the professional engineering field.

But more than that, Burnham’s students learn an important lesson that is sometimes overlooked in education. Burnham put it this way: “Very rarely do you learn from something you did really well in one go. It’s when you fail and tweak and fail again until finally you get it right. That’s a real success.”

If I had it to do over again, I’d certainly be a part of a high school FIRST team, and I’d be lucky if to have a teacher as dedicated and thoughtful as Burnham.

Siemens has sponsored this post. They have had no editorial input to this post. Unless otherwise stated, all opinions are mine. —Kyle Maxey