America’s Technical Future is in Good Hands

By Jack Bader, Neteffects’ Founder

Recently I attended an XPrize Foundation board meeting in Atlanta. Our meeting was hosted by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway™ scooter and the FIRST® Robotics Championship (FRC) competition. The meeting coincided with the world finals for FRC held in the Georgia Dome…and we were invited to spend some time exploring in the pits and watching the competition. This experience highlighted the wonderful achievements that young people can accomplish if they are challenged.

Imagine 1,500 worldwide teams of high school students who each receive an identical Kit of Parts (KoP), all on the same day. The challenge is to build a remote-controlled robot that can navigate around a fixed course and perform certain challenges. Nobody knows what the course looks like until you receive your KoP (which includes the 2008 layout). What is truly amazing is that the time period allowed from receiving your KoP until the first regional competition is only 6 weeks!

In order to field a team, schools must:

  • Build a team of 10 – 20 students
  • Find 3 – 6 adult mentors
  • Raise approximately $10,000

Each team must also be prepared to dedicate incredible amounts of time and energy to fabricate the robot and program it for competition.
Now I must admit that I was a big fan of Battlebots™ when it was on cable and I have dozens of miniature robots in my office. So I was genetically predisposed to enjoy this event; however, nothing truly prepared me for what an FRC competition is all about, the spirit and capabilities of the students and how exciting it was.

Walking into the Georgia dome was like nothing that I had experienced before. Hundreds of teams were bustling around and each had some type of creative colors, costume and marketing approach. Judges and volunteers were zipping all over the place using Segway™ scooters. There was a palatable buzz of energy in the building.

We went into the “pits” where each team had a 10’ x 10’ area in which to work on their robot in preparation for their rounds of competition. Some teams had displays set up describing how their robots operated. Others had fun robotic games on display. Most of the teams even had Public Relations folks who would come out and greet visitors, give out pins and flyers and answer questions. Keep in mind that all of these individuals were teenagers!

The actual competition was impressive and you should all take a look at the various links to YouTube videos at the end of this article. The Georgia Dome was rocking with the cheering of thousands of people. The actual competition was fast and furious and it took me awhile to understand the complicated scoring but in the end there was one international winning team who was crowned 2008 champion.
This activity gives students a tremendous advantage and offers them the ability to:

  • Learn how to work with a team
  • Interact with senior level experts
  • Push themselves to do highly complicated tasks
  • Get excited
  • Jumpstart their future

The technical sophistication of these robots would rival those of professional engineers and each robot was different yet they all had the same goal. These kids were free to imagine yet they all had to work together towards a deadline. Many of the teams were comprised of kids from troubled schools…and they demonstrated that excellent learning can be done in non-traditional ways.

NetEffects has sponsored an FRC team and I would urge you all to either sponsor a team or get involved by providing mentors to teams that are forming in your kid’s schools. I believe that seeing FRC participation on a resume will soon have the same meaning as achieving Eagle Scout or other hard-to-achieve certifications and will be an indicator of future success.

One thing was clear to me: the technical future of the country is in good hands. I know there’s a lot of hand wringing about the quality of education, but if these young people are any indication of what our schools are turning out, America will compete with any nation, any time, anywhere!

YouTube Links