“Sport of the Mind” Inspires Students’ Passion for Technology

TACOMA, Wash. – March 26, 2008 – Thousands of students, parents and teachers that filled the Tacoma Convention Center chanted, waved signs, yelled and pounded on the bleachers, creating a deafening din to cheer on their favorite teams.

But no hockey pucks, basketballs or backboards were in sight. Instead, these students huddled around joysticks and other controls as they drove robot creations around a track in the heat of competition. In the “pit” nearby, teams worked with power tools and computers to diagnose, troubleshoot and enhance the performance of their robot competitors.

Microsoft Principal Researcher Mike Sinclair (left) and Ben Leclerc (right) help Team Xbot get ready for competition at the FIRST Microsoft Seattle regional robotics event. Sinclair and Leclerc are volunteer mentors to Team Xbot, a robotics team from Seattle’s Franklin High School and other South Seattle area high schools. Team Xbot won the Regional Chairman’s Award at the Seattle regional event. March 22, 2008.

After a five-year hiatus, the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics regional competition returned to the Pacific Northwest last week, bringing hundreds of participants, supporters and mechanical “contestants” to the Tacoma Convention Center. The event featured more than 30 teams from British Columbia, Alaska, Montana, Washington and Oregon, each vying for a slot at the FIRST World Championships in Atlanta next month.

The new regional event was partially inspired and sponsored by the Microsoft Robotics Group, one of company’s new business startups.

“FIRST embodies and delivers one of the most exciting aspects we see in robotics,” says Tandy Trower, General Manager of the Microsoft Robotics Group, “and that is its ability motivate students’ interest, regardless of gender, in science, mathematics and the fundamental aspects of the engineering process. Our sponsorship of Seattle Regional FIRST Competition reflects not only Microsoft’s interest in robotics, but also our investment in applying technology to improve the educational experience.”

When it comes to FIRST Robotics, competing and winning is only part of the equation. Equally important is the community, teamwork, spirit and creativity that the robots and the competition itself create.

“There’s an emotional connection to this, a connection in the heart as well as the head,” says Microsoft’s Stewart Tansley, senior program manager for robotics in Microsoft External Research & Programs. “The concept of a machine with a life of its own goes back to ancient times, and today we’re using robots as a context to stimulate, educate and bring out the innate enthusiasm that a lot of kids have for technology.”

The FIRST Robotics Competition program was held in 1992, when 28 teams competed at an event in New Hampshire. At that time, founder Dean Kamen’s idea was to give kids a new opportunity. Athletics had always been an integral part of academic life, but there was a need on the other side of things, the cerebral side. Kamen’s vision was to help create a world where science and technology are celebrated, and young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes.

Today, the FIRST Robotics Competition is one of the premier competitions of its kind in the world, having grown to more than 1,500 teams and 37,000 students from Brazil, Chile, Israel, Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and every state in the U.S., competing at 41 regional events to vie for a chance to win it all in Atlanta.

“Our whole view is that kids look up at adults doing cool things,” says Paul Gudonis, current president of the worldwide FIRST organization. “In the media, kids see adults bouncing a ball or trying to sing their way onto a Hollywood stage. They don’t see the cool people working at Microsoft, Boeing, GE and NASA. Dean’s founding idea was to have professional engineers and scientists work side-by-side with kids and create this great ‘sport of the mind,’ and that’s what you see here today.”

Since the competition began, thousands of students have joined FIRST Robotics teams, and many of those have gone on to pursue careers in science and technology.

Seattle Team Xbot mentor and Microsoft Principal Researcher Mike Sinclair has been a volunteer with the program for seven years. When he initially joined the program, Sinclair thought it would be a couple hours a week. But the passion and excitement the program created in the students was contagious, and Sinclair now spends hundreds of hours a year working intensely with students building a variety of robots. For this year’s competition, Sinclair is mentoring Team Xbot, a robotics team made up of students from Seattle’s Franklin High School, as well as other South End area high schools.

“At a lot of these high schools we work with, the graduation rate isn’t high, and certainly the rate at which kids from those schools enter college isn’t high,” Sinclair says. “So to see the light bulb come on for these kids, where they understand the practical side of engineering and science and begin to think about education beyond high school is just tremendously rewarding.”

In his seven years with the program, Sinclair has seen several FIRST students gone on to careers in technology, and many also go on to become mentors or volunteer for the organization in other ways as they make their way into the professional world.

FIRST Alumni Pursue Careers in Science and Technlogy, Inspire Students

One judge at this year’s Seattle regional competition, Aisha Ayoub, began as a FIRST participant in 1998 as a high school freshman. After high school, Aloub went to the University of Florida and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. She has since worked for Boeing and Bosch, and is now a program manager at Microsoft, working on the next version of Microsoft Windows.

“Without FIRST, I definitely would not have been an engineer,” says Ayoub. “The reason I ended up at Microsoft is because of FIRST. Now I’m working on the new version Windows, but you’ll have to wait to hear about that.”

Ayoub has served as a FIRST volunteer, mentor, judge, and even founder of another FIRST organization—after ninth grade she and her friends started what became the FIRST Lego League, which allows younger kids in grade school to participate in competitions building robots out of Legos. The league has grown to become a multinational organization in its own right.

“We started with three kids and expanded to over 300,” Ayoub says. “Now younger kids can experience what engineering and science is about.”

Making Science and Technlogy Real by Building Robots

The high-school FIRST Robotics Competition begins on the first Saturday of January each year, when a new set of competition rules is delivered.

“The competition is different every time, and that keeps the experienced teams from maturing and perfecting the same robot,” Sinclair says. “You don’t really know what your robot is going to do until the rules come out. Then, you’ve got six weeks — Go for it.”

With only a short time to create a robot to complete specific tasks, the projects are designed to replicate engineering challenges that professionals face in their day-to-day worlds.

Seattle area high school students competing in the Microsoft Seattle Regtional 2008 FIRST Robotics Competition at the Tacoma Convention Center in Tacoma, Wash. Thirty-one teams across the region participated in the robotics event, designing and controlling robots to complete certain “game tasks” to receive points. March 22, 2008.

“Kids want to have it look cool, lots of bells and whistles, but you can’t do it all in six weeks,” Sinclair says. “So we begin by prioritizing the functionality and then start working on the design. Part of the team works with computer aided design, and others address problems that haven’t been thought out, rapidly prototyping different approaches.”

It doesn’t hurt that Sinclair’s lab at Microsoft Research is outfitted with a host of professional machining tools used in his work designing micoelectrical mechanical systems, micromotors and user interface devices.

“It’s a quick prototyping lab, which is perfect for the kids and what they’re trying to do,” he says. “In the evenings, the kids are allowed to come in and learn about plasma cutters, hand tools, milling machines, lathes, laser cutters, things they would probably never have an opportunity to see otherwise.”

For the kids, it’s an interesting and valuable experience, whether they plan to use those skills in their professional life or not.

“Before FIRST and Xbot I didn’t know how to do any of that; I knew how to use a drill, a hammer,” says Andrew Kiszelewski, a junior at Seattle’s Franklin High School. “I want to be a mechanical or aeronautical engineer, and it would be great to be the worker also, building what I’ve engineered.”

Skills in building and fabricating the physical robot, of course, are just part of the equation. Echoing Stewart Tansley’s point about the robot being a vehicle for teaching a variety of subjects, the process of creating a FIRST Robotics entry is a team effort that spans many other valuable life skills, including fundraising, management and administration, as well as connecting the dots between abstract learning in math and science and practical application.

“You can actually use math,” Sinclair says. “It’s great to see students say wow, so that’s what a sine is for. That’s what a tangent is for. This is one of the biggest struggles in education today. They say why am I learning this stuff? I’ll never use it. With FIRST they say, whoa, I just used that.”

This year Sinclair’s team, Xbot, took home the coveted Regional Chairman’s Award at the Seattle area competition, which honors “the team judged to have created the best partnership effort among participants, and to have best exemplified the true meaning of FIRST.”

“When we’re judging, we’re looking for enthusiasm, attitude,” says Ayoub. “Twenty years from now you’re not going to think about whether you won the competition. It’s what you made out of it, and the opportunities these kids are getting.”

The cheering crowds that attended the Microsoft Seattle Regional in Tacoma made sure that enthusiasm wasn’t in short supply for the student teams participating.

“This is the loudest regional I’ve been to,” says FIRST President Gudonis. “This is week four of March Madness, FIRST style. We’ve got a lot of enthusiasm here, seven rookie teams and there’s a high quality of play. FIRST is grateful to Microsoft and the Microsoft Robotics Group for sponsoring a Seattle Regional competition.”

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