FIRST robotics competition comes back to UC Davis

Published 20 March 2008

Robotic competition among high-school students aims to promote and reward students’ engagement in innovation and engineering, and encourage youngsters to become curious and interested in science and mathematics

We often write about the decline in math, science, and engineering education in the United States, so it is good to note events which buck this worrisome trend. The Davis/Sacramento FIRST Robotics Regional Competition returns to the Pavilion at the UC Davis Activities and Recreation Center 20-22 March. Tomorrow is a practice day, and competition rounds will run all day Friday and Saturday. The event will be open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, and admission is free. Thirty-seven teams including more than 1,000 high-school students from across Northern California will take part, competing for a range of honors and prizes, college scholarships, and a shot at the national championships in Atlanta later in the year. Quite a few local school teams are taking part, including a joint team from Woodland and Pioneer high schools in Woodland. We mention this team because the Woodland schools’ team is mentored by UC Davis engineering students from the Chicano and Latino Engineers and Scientists Society (CALESS) and the Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists (MAES). In the bleachers will be groups from nine local schools that take part in MESA (Math, Engineering, Science Achievement), a statewide program that helps disadvantaged students excel in math and science from school to college graduation. The Sacramento State/UC Davis MESA program, the largest in the state, is based at CSU Sacramento. “The opportunity for educationally disadvantaged students to participate in what will be part of their future is immeasurable,” said Jean Crowder, director of the local MESA program. “It is the goal of the Sac State/UC Davis MESA program to continue to provide the academic support these students need to engage in the FIRST Robotics program and competitions.”

Two years ago, a similar group from Hiram Johnson High School attended the competition at UC Davis. That inspired the students to take part in the 2007 competition — where they took home honors as the best rookie team. “We hope we can get the kids and their teachers excited about FIRST, and get them back as competitors next year,” said Renee Maldonado, director of student development and recruitment for the UC Davis College of Engineering and also one of the volunteers who make FIRST happen.

FIRST (it stands for: “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”) was created in 1989 by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway scooter, as a unique “varsity sport” for the mind, combining the excitement of sport with science and technology. Through FIRST, high-school students discover the rewarding and engaging process of innovation and engineering, and become curious and interested in science and mathematics. Beginning with a synchronized national kickoff event held 5 January, the teams have had just six weeks to design, build and test a robot to take part in this year’s competition, based on a “starter kit” of sensors, wheels and other hardware. They work with professional engineers who volunteer as mentors. Every year, FIRST organizers unveil a new game to challenge participants. In this year’s game, “Overdrive,” robots have to race around a track while shepherding a 10-pound, 40” ball and lifting it over a bridge. Teams at regional competitions are judged on the effectiveness of their robots, their power of collaboration and partnerships, and the spirit and determination of their students. Teams are then rewarded for excellence in robot design, demonstrated team spirit, community involvement, gracious professionalism and ability to overcome obstacles. Successful teams from regional competitions go on to the national championships in Atlanta later in the season.

Based in Manchester, New Hampshire, the nonprofit FIRST organization designs accessible, innovative programs to build self-confidence, knowledge and life skills while motivating young people to pursue academic opportunities in math, science, engineering and computer technology. “The FIRST Robotics Competition is not just about the design and building of sophisticated robots. These students also develop maturity, professionalism, teamwork and mentoring skills that enrich their lives,” said Kamen. “Many of our students develop an affinity for their science and math courses, go on to study engineering, technology or science in college, and also to pursue employment opportunities with sponsoring organizations.”

Major sponsors of the Davis/Sacramento regional competition are Abbot Labs Diabetic Division, Chevron, the Bay Area chapter of the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering, and UC Davis. Individual teams also are expected to find their own sponsors.