FIRST to the Future

Building self-confidence, knowledge, life skills … and robots.

By Susan Shullaw

Looking like weird mash-ups of Erector sets and cell phone parts, the little robots spin and whir furiously across the 12- by 12-foot mat, advancing, colliding, reversing and charging forward as their ungainly arms grasp at whiffle balls that keep rolling out of reach.

Around the perimeter of the mat, the robots’ creators – girls and boys in their mid to late teens – control the robots’ movements while shouting directions and encouragement. Just beyond the competition floor, hundreds of friends, family members, coaches and sponsors leap and cheer for their teams. The excitement is intense and the noise is deafening. But listen carefully, and you can hear futures being born.

Welcome to FIRST Tech Challenge

Founded in 1989 by inventor Dean competition and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC). All are designed to motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) while building self-confidence, knowledge and life skills.

One of FIRST’s most distinctive features is its embrace “Gracious Professionalism®,” coined by Dr. Woodie Flowers, FIRST Distinguished Advisor and Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy, Flowers has said, but treat one another with respect and kindness in the process, achieving a comfortable blend of knowledge, competition and empathy.

In other words, FIRST attracts young participants whose talents and training are well suited for the UI College of Engineering and for companies eager to hire its graduates. One of those companies, Rockwell Collins, is among FIRST’s national sponsors. Rockwell Collins also happens to be a major corporate partner of the UI College of Engineering. Rebecca Whitaker, who directs the college’s FIRST Tech Challenge program, connects the dots.

“In 2009, Rockwell Collins approached the college about becoming the state’s first official FTC affiliate organization,” she explains. “Back then there were only two FTC teams in Iowa – in Solon and Sioux City – and they had to travel to nearby states to participate in competition. I was directing the college’s K-12 outreach programs at the time, and FTC seemed like a perfect fit for the work we were already doing with elementary and secondary schools around the state.”

Competition and coordination

With the help of generous grant funding from Rockwell Collins, as well as corporate partners including John Deere and MidAmerican Energy Company, the College of Engineering became an FTC affiliate – and quickly emerged as one of the top programs in the nation. From two teams in 2009, Iowa today is fielding 210 teams involving more than 2,100 young people from across the state.

For the third year in a row – beating out contenders like Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Minneapolis – Iowa will be hosting FTC’s North Super Regional Competition, which will bring 72 teams from 13 states to the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids in March 2016. Iowa’s performance so impressed FIRST founder Dean Kamen that he sent a congratulatory video message in 2012, declaring “Iowa, you’re first!”

The FTC season begins in May with the start of team registration, and concludes the following April with the FTC World Championship. FTC kickoff events are held in September, when the game itself is revealed to teams worldwide. This year, the game is called “Res-Q,” requiring the robots to pick up various forms of debris (small balls and blocks), drop them in baskets, climb a ramp and hang from a bar at the top of the ramp. Following the kickoff, teams get busy designing, building, programming and testing their robots. Tournament season runs from November through February.

“We use a league competition system, where a dozen or so local teams compete several times before moving up to the next level, which in this case is the FTC league championship,” Whitaker says. “That’s where we learn which teams will advance. We have 85 meets across the state, followed by nine league championships, and all will feed into the Iowa championship held in Coralville in March.

“Teams average about 12 members from grades 7-12,” she continues. “The competitions are really fun and I get a little crazy, dye my hair green, that sort of thing. The students always remember me!”

Green hair aside, the students likely remember Whitaker and the College of Engineering for the wide-ranging support they provide to FTC participants, including coordination of some 250 volunteers, from referees and judges to robot instructors. The college also helps facilitate corporate grants and hosts professional development sessions for team coaches.

STEM steps forward

Equally impressive, the college’s FTC efforts have received significant funding for the past four years through the Iowa Governor’s STEM Initiative – $45,000 this year alone, reports Whitaker. “To my knowledge no other state supports FTC programs at this level,” she says, “and in our case, John Deere, Rockwell Collins and MidAmerican will match those funds. With help from the state and our corporate partners, no team should have to face financial obstacles.”

Given the college’s deep involvement in FTC competition, many FTC participants look toward the UI as they begin their college search. Although precise numbers aren’t available, Whitaker is certain that FTC is having a positive impact on the college’s admissions numbers. She hosts a welcome-to-school gathering for FTC alumni at the start of the fall semester, and reports that 35 students attended this year’s event.

Devon Zimmerman of Sioux City is one of those FTC alumni and a member of what you might call a FIRST family. His older sister was part of a 4H FIRST LEGO League team for several years, his parents were league coaches and Devon joined an FTC team during his sophomore year in high school. Now, as a College of Engineering freshman, he’s serving as a team mentor. “I really enjoyed FTC competition and just wanted to stay involved,” he says. “It definitely helps instill better thinking and communication skills.”

For Rebecca Whitaker, FTC offers obvious benefits for the state, the college and individual students, and the program is professionally rewarding as well. But there’s a more personal side to her involvement. “My son is 8 and my daughter is 10, and both are on FIRST LEGO League teams,” she says. “Their exposure to FIRST competition is a great way to underscore what I tell them all the time: Just go for it. You can do anything you want to do.”