In Neil Bascomb’s book The New Cool, he looks at a traditional geek pastime that is finally becoming recognized as the intense sport that it is — robotics. Bascomb highlights Amir Abo-Shaeer, a California high school teacher who has taken robotics into the classroom. Abo-Shaeer has a team of high school students who learn by participating in the international FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). (Read an excerpt from The New Cool.)
FRC calls itself “The varsity sport for the mind.” Teams spend lots of time building battle bots and then testing them out in competitions. But the FRC isn’t just fun and games. Teams of high school students work with engineers to build bots that meet FRC guidelines; they also design team brands and raise funds in order to afford the necessary equipment and materials. FIRST competitors also qualify for more than $14 million in college scholarships, which helps gives these students an edge over other college applicants. This all adds up to an incredible educational opportunity.
Most FRC teams aren’t based in-house at high schools. Abo-Shaeer explains in the book that he had to work hard to get the program accepted, and that the program is financially self-sustaining with fundraising efforts by the team and from corporate sponsors. The good news is there are an increasing number of corporate sponsors interested in these teams. It seems companies are waking up to the reality that we need the upcoming workforce to be as educated as possible, and investing in learning opportunities like FIRST programs today is one way to ensure a capable workforce for tomorrow.
Most FIRST league teams are independent and are captained by adult volunteers with engineering and computer programming knowledge. FIRST offers teams a lot of support, so independent teams aren’t out on their own. FIRST partners with corporate sponsors and supply companies to get teams started and help them succeed.
For the individual who would like to get involved, you don’t have to have a kid in the program to volunteer and even help run events — just go to the FIRST website and look up teams and events in your area. FIRST events are free to the public and are a geeky way to spend a day.
FRC and the more “geographically accessible” FIRST Tech Challenge is for high schoolers; FIRST also runs LEGO leagues for ages 6-9 and a separate league for grades 4-8. Elementary and middle school kids learning engineering concepts while engaging in LEGO competitions? Yes, please. This geek mom isn’t into athletics, but LEGO competitions are one sport I’m happy to attend. Plus, I won’t have to worry about embarrassing my kid with my general geekiness. As for fundraising, what’s the geek equivalent of selling funnel cakes?