FIRST Firsts; Robots built by kids.

The weekend of March 20th I was invited to volunteer for the Greater Pittsburgh Regional FIRST Robotics Competition. I was coerced by Ben Matzke into getting up at 4:30am and traveling to snowy rural CALIFORNIA, Pennsylvania. I have known Ben from our time in Sweepstakes at CMU (Aka “Buggy”). Ben has taken over running the Buggy Alumni Association, so I’ve been seeing more of him as I try to contribute meaningfully to this organization I love.

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I was familiar with FIRST because I had done Botball in middle and high school. In fact by the time I had arrived at Carnegie Mellon I had been building robots for nearly 6 years. Working with mechanisms, coding in a really simplistic form of C++ (“Interactive C”), soldering wires and programming understandable logic into “Rocks we tricked into thinking“.

FIRST was always the pinnacle of these kinds of events. With a $6000 entry fee (that’s before you’ve started building robots or buying tools) it was way out of reach for my team of 16 year old fundraisers.

This event had a similar feel to the Botball robotics “Greater DC” regional that I was familiar with; A center stage set up in a school gymnasium with lots of cameras live-streams and volunteer staffers in matching t-shirts. Lots of kids in small rectangular pits allocated a certain amount of space in which to build and modify their robots between matches…..But this was bigger!

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The robots were more robust these things had effective gearing and powerful drive-trains that allowed them to get up to very high speeds, or haul around heavy objects or other robots with ease.

The field…

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…was an order of magnitude larger then the game area we prepared for;  the largest 8’x8′ field we used for Botball would have fit in the space taken up by the ‘airship’ on the FIRST arena.

I was put in the ‘traffic cop’ role of getting all teams to the field for their scheduled bouts pulling them from their frantic repairs and iterative code changes to thrust them into the hurry up and wait game of standing near the side of the field watching the matches play out. It was the only way we could have possibly kept this event from being further behind schedule then we already were through no fault of anyone in-particular.

I’ve always loved being behind the scenes. In general I wont be at an event unless my presence there serves some purpose. Or at the very least I’ll tend to stick to the edges and not engage with too many people.

But this weekend I met lots of passionate kids, excited about what they were building, weather they win or lose. Lots of dedicated adults who were willing to give an inordinate amount of time (and an unreasonable amount of money) to helping young people get exposure to the technology that is increasingly present and pivotal in our modern world.

Making this happen is not cheap. But the experience is invaluable…it’s part of why we need to continue to fund educational programs in the United States…

Thanks for the invite Ben! I had a great time.

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