One of the unsung heroes in the U.S. battle to maintain its science and technology competitiveness is the FIRST organization known for its youth robotics competitions. With the transition to 5G communications and advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), the competitive battle between countries for technology leadership is growing. President Trump has gone so far as to sign an executive order to spur investment in artificial intelligence and has called 5G a race “America must win.” While this makes the headlines, most people fail to realize some of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (referred to as STEM) organizations like FIRST are the best solution to the long-term competitiveness of the U.S.
If you have a child, STEM is one of the buzz words in education and rightfully so. With the shift in manufacturing to regions with lower labor costs and the limited number of people that are likely to be the next professional athlete or YouTube star, STEM jobs hold the greatest promise for high-paying jobs in the U.S. while building a better, smarter, and more competitive country. Even low skilled jobs will become increasingly rare as kiosks replace people at McDonald’s, robots take over stocking in Amazon warehouses, automated machinery is replacing farm workers, and autonomous drones and vehicle will replace delivery people, taxi drivers, and truckers. The reality for future generations is that if they are not involved in the technology that is changing the world, they risk being left behind. As FIRST President Donald Bossi explains, “the future requires technology innovators that are lifelong learners.”
FIRST, meaning “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” was founded in 1989 with a vision “to transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders” according to FIRST founder, Dean Kamen. FIRST now encompasses four robotics leagues for school children in kindergarten through high school, including FIRST Lego League, FIRST Lego League Jr., FIRST Tech Challenge, and FIRST Robotics Competition. The emphasis and recognition is on the robotics, but the “I” for inspiration is probably the most important part of FIRST because it is more than just about robotics or competition, it is about inspiring future generations to be the best people they can be and excite them to continue to advance technology to benefit everyone.
The FIRST organization is really one huge club filled with mentors and students from all walks of life and from all over the world that work together, even when competing against one another. Teams may be by classes, schools, neighborhoods, home school groups, churches, or just about any other social group you can imagine. Each team has mentors, adults that may be knowledgeable or just interested in learning about robotics, and sponsors, government and corporate sponsors willing to assist the team through financial support and/or knowledge. Teams are challenged to build everything from business plans that help fund their team’s activities to technical designs that meet the needs of the robotics competition within limited time frames. The FIRST organization is also comprised of thousands of volunteers that run that organize and run the competitions. According to FIRST, there are over 175,000 volunteers donating over 20 million hours to FIRST activities annually.
Once a robotics challenge, such as the space themes for 2019, is communicated, teams have a limited time to develop a plan and build a robot to compete in the respective league. From there, FIRST holds regional events that eventually lead up to a world championship. FIRST now includes more than 600,000 students in teams from 112 countries including, Australia, China, Israel, and throughout North and South America. The league has grown so large that FIRST must now hold two championship events – Houston on April 17-20 and Detroit on April 24-27, where nearly 70,000 total attendees are expected.
In addition to the team, there are over 3,500 corporate sponsors. Some you would expect, such as technology leaders like Qualcomm, the lead sponsor for the FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Championship. However, there are others that may surprise you – like consulting firm Booz, Allen & Hamilton, consumer products vendor Johnson & Johnson, and shipper FedEx. While companies often site FIRST sponsorships as an investment in the community, their reasons are not completely altruistic. Most of the companies are looking for future talent. By working with FIRST, sponsors gain access to young people before or just as they enter the workforce that have a high technical and business acumen, interested in learning, have a good work ethic, are team oriented, and accustomed to being mentored by experienced people. Many sponsors offer internships to both high school and college students, college scholarships, and even positions after college. BAE Systems, for example, claims that 33% of its new employees are FIRST alums. The US Government is also a key sponsor and benefactor of FIRST. NASA has always been a big sponsor of FIRST and the Department of Defense (DoD) sponsors over 1,000 teams from FIRST Lego League through the FIRST Robotics Competition. Other strategic partners and founding sponsors include 3M, Apple, Argosy Foundation, Baxter, Bechtel, Boeing, Bosch, Boston Scientific, Caterpillar, Collins Aerospace, Deka, Delphi, Dow, FCA (Fiat Chrysler), GM, Google, John Deere, KPCB (Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers), Lockheed Martin, Motorola Solutions Foundation, National Instruments, Rockwell Automation, TE, United Technologies, and Xerox.
For a few companies like Lego and Qualcomm, the sponsorship goes much further to include the technology platforms used by the students. Lego has long developed its Mindstorms platform as an easy way for students to learn about robotics and programming. Qualcomm, a leader in mobile and wireless technology, has been working with the FIRST Tech Challenge to offer a more advanced platform for students that includes the latest mobile processors, wireless interfaces, and even AI solutions. The First Tech Challenge teams can leverage Snapdragon-based smartphones and an $800 electrical and mechanical kit. This solution offers students the opportunity to work with the most advanced heterogenous processors available in a platform that is very familiar. In addition, the Snapdragon solution is very flexible, capable of supporting a variety of operating systems (OSs), and less intimidating than a box of chips. This also gives more than 70,000 students a year an opportunity to work with mobile platforms, which are now driving innovation in everything from TVs to cars, appliances, robotics, medical platforms, industrial controls, and even PCs (the Always-Connected PCs). According to FIRST, teams adapt rapidly to using the augmented reality (AR) technology from Vuforia (a spinoff from Qualcomm), and the Snapdragon platform for AI processing for applications including computer vision and object recognition. In addition to its technical support, Qualcomm is a direct sponsor for hundreds of teams and an indirect sponsor of upwards of 2,000 teams. And, like many sponsors, Qualcomm is also flagging FIRST students for internship and employment opportunities. As an example of the number of volunteer hours contributed by corporate and government sponsors, Qualcomm employees committed over ten thousand hours of volunteer time during the 2017-2018 season.
For the students, FIRST is a thrilling experience. From my own volunteer work with FIRST, I can attest to this experience. A FIRST competition is like nothing you have ever seen before. Students dress up in hand-made costumes, local schools often bus in bands and fans, and the competition is like a three-ring circus with activities going on everywhere you look. While excited, students face the challenges of dealing with unexpected problems, success, and crushing failure in real-time. But more than anything, they are never alone. Even in competition, teams are always willing to lend a hand to other teams and cheer on their rivals. FIRST events are fun, emotional, and exhausting, but most of all, they are memorable and inspirational. And for many students, FIRST does not end with college or military service. FIRST opens doors to future employers and more than 50% of FIRST alumni return to mentor or volunteer.
With the FIRST Championship coming up this week, I encourage anyone in the Houston or Detroit areas to go experience the excitement first hand; for parents, I encourage you to foster the young scientist or engineer in your child; and for our government, I encourage you to support organizations like FIRST and the sponsors that are advancing technology and keeping our country competitive.
The author and members of the TIRIAS Research staff do not hold equity positions in any of the companies mentioned. TIRIAS Research tracks and consults for companies throughout the electronics ecosystem from semiconductors to systems and sensors to the cloud. Members of the TIRIAS Research team have consulted for Apple, Motorola, and Qualcomm.