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FIRST — The Robotic Competition For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology

Photos courtesy of Don Fricke1 / 3
Submitted photo.2 / 3
Submitted photo.3 / 3

Founders of FIRST Dean Camen and Woodie Flowers had concerns that kids were losing interest and not keeping up in this fast changing world of technology. Their idea was to get students involved in robotics as a sport. The first competition was held in a high school gym with just 28 teams — now there are 4,000 teams with millions of students worldwide.

Since 1989, high school students from around the globe have been challenged by the founders of FIRST as a way to get young learners interested in the world of science, technology, engineering and math. Since then, the program has blossomed into an extraordinary adventure. Early in March, Minnesota was well represented in Duluth by 3,000 high school students on 123 teams along with their coaches, mentors, proud parents and grandparents from the upper Midwest. For three days they filled the city’s lodging establishments and the convention center to overflowing.

The concept has leveled the playing field with rigid rules. Robot kits are mailed out all across the globe and must be built, programed and refined in six weeks to perform pre-arranged tasks. At the end of the six weeks, the robots must be boxed up and sealed, not to be opened until they are at the competition site.

I had the pleasure of meeting Red Wing’s robotic team, Red Wing Tech, that has been coached for the last four years by Don Fricke, a retired Xcel Energy engineer. He is assisted by an employee of a local business with necessary welding skills and several skilled volunteers. Eighteen students traveled to Duluth in early March.

Fricke said, “We built our most complex robot this year. It had to perform four functions.”

The premise of the competition harked back to the days of steam power and early flight. At each end of the competition floor were elaborate structures. The design was so complicated that the first day of trials was delayed for more than two hours as the experts putting them together ran into problems.

The premise of this year’s competition was to build steam pressure in a “boiler” so the robots had to collect “fuel” or balls then drive them to the boiler and shoot them inside. The next challenge was to collect gears for the drive train then drive them to the pilots on the “airship.” The robot had to gather enough “gears” to put on a pulley to be raised by the pilots to start the rotors readying the airship for flight. Then the robot had to climb a rope to get “on board.”

The students had to figure out how to construct the robot to do all of the tasks required. They had to be completed in two minutes of competition.

The competitions have been dubbed “The sport for the mind.”

It is said employers can find people with tech skills, but they are lacking in the "soft skills" — talents like teamwork, communication, punctuality, critical thinking and adaptability. Fricke said, "The students have to build prototypes, design and discuss strategy, choose configurations, research the shooter design, research intake design, mock-up the drive frame, design the climber and design the gear catcher."

Mechanical applications were necessary, including building everything they researched. To be successful they had to learn to work as a team.

There was electrical work like wiring up the control system, the robot and the wagon to transport it. Fricke had an exceptional team. One young man on the mechanical team learned Java, a software language that allows programmers to write code in English. It controlled the robot and all of its working parts during competition.

The kids learned much more than building their robot, number 5299. They learned "soft skills" whether they wanted to or not. I found it impressive as so many well known corporations have representatives there scouting for future employees. Some offer scholarships. The students have to write essays, go through interviews and learn to build alliances with those they were competing against.

Each match has six robots — three are red and three are blue. While they compete against each other on the first day, they are watching the competition to see who could possibly join an alliance as individual teams are now teams of three robots. Then each individual robotic team had to convince others that they would be valuable in an alliance.

Fricke said during the scouting and advocating process, "The team unleashed three intelligent, articulate, persuasive women on a room full of nerds." The alliance they joined did quite well winning two but losing one run. "We just came a few points shy of going to state," Fricke said.

Red Wing's first robotic team had six members with only one girl, a freshman whose father was an engineer. She was invaluable. The rookie team so impressed the judges that they made it to state finals and went to St. Louis for the nationals. That was a very high bar to set for teams that followed.

This year the team out of eleven matches won seven and lost four. They placed 15th out of 63 teams. At their banquet Fricke asked what they felt about their experience.

One young lady said she learned cooperation. "Working with others even if you don't agree with what they say."

Another said she learned "presentation and speaking skills."

A young man said, "I only had one friend. Now I've gained social skills and learned team building." I have a feeling he found his niche in this world and is going to go far.

Red Wing has another team from the alternative school. They will be competing in early April at Williams Arena in the Twin Cities. If you want to attend the loudest mega pep rally you'll ever hear, go to Williams Arena for the experience of a lifetime. But bring ear plugs. These kids are our future and what they accomplished in six weeks bodes well for our future.

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