June 9, 2016
by Chris Curran
What can businesses learn from programs that use robotics and gamification to spark kids’ interest in math and science?
When my son decided to dump football for something more engineering oriented, my wife and I stumbled upon FIRST Robotics. FIRST was started over 25 years ago by inventor Dean Kaman. He wanted to bring the excitement of sports to high school students interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) through fast-paced competitions that resemble 3-on-3 basketball tournaments with robots as the players.
As part of PwC’s partner sabbatical program, I recently spent a season as a full-time mentor to my son’s FIRST team. I witnessed a learning environment unlike anything I’ve seen before. The robotics program maintained engagement, spurred innovation, and motivated students to do their best through complexity, competition, and continuity.
1. Complexity keeps inquisitive minds engaged
FRC is FIRST’s most sophisticated program (they have four), targeting older high school students. FRC launches a new game every January, with new game elements, playing fields and objectives each time. While robots tend to leverage similar drivetrain and manipulator designs from year to year, the design of the contest (watch a video of the 2016 medieval contest) and its 100+ page rulebook create enough complexity to challenge most professional engineers and designers, much less relatively inexperienced students. This complexity, and the tight six-week design and build timeline, force teams to apply sophisticated agile, iterative work styles, multi-disciplinary teams and rapid prototyping. In addition, the students build and hone their skills with CAD tools, lathes, CNC machines, laser cutters, 3D printers, microcontrollers, motors and pneumatic controllers. Whew! It’s this complexity (and the tools and approaches for managing the complexity) that keeps inquisitive students engaged.
2. Competition captivates
The complexity of building a robot might alone engage a sharp student or small team for a while, but what creates the staying power? The opportunity for a high school to pit their robot against their rival high school’s bot is tantalizing and motivating. However, it also sometimes results in alliances and rivalries formed beyond traditional districts and into national and global realms. The competition also encourages each team to build the most capable, best designed and engineered, fastest, coolest looking bot. As a result, teams are driven to innovate and raise the bar for the competition.
3. Continuity creates learners for the long haul
As believers in the benefits of strong STEM skills in our community, my wife and I have supported numerous math and science programs, summer camps, MakerFaires and science centers over the last 20+ years (my wife was the driving force behind this science and tech center). All of these programs are great in their own way, but tend to be transient – kids visit a museum or attend a camp, get excited for a while, and then go back home, often without a way to continue that experience and the underlying learning. However, FIRST is focused on creating continuity.
FIRST teams become more competitive each year by carrying forward institutional knowledge. Each team is organized differently, younger and older students create a pipeline of knowledge and skills year to year and are assisted by adult mentors. The opportunity to build skills over time and apply lessons learned from one year to the next encourages participation beyond just a single 5-month season. Furthermore, FIRST has created other less sophisticated leagues to encourage a year-round experience and a way for more experienced students to mentor new team members.
How can you borrow some of these traits to energize your organization to improve technology innovation contests and initiatives? How can you get involved in FIRST or similar programs to tap into the hearts and minds of up and coming STEM brainpower?