Dean Kamen's 2010 Homework

Ten years ago, I attended a FIRST kick-off in snowy New Hampshire. A thousand or more high school students and their mentors had traveled from all corners of the United States to see, revealed, the game for the 2000 FIRST season. About 280 teams were in the game that year. FIRST founder Dean Kamen looked at me seriously, and said, “We’re going to have 2000 teams. Every high school in the country will have a FIRST team. You’re going to help.” By 2000, I had known Dean for five years, but I didn’t really understand the power of what he was doing with FIRST until I got involved with a team and began attending and volunteering at Regional Competitions.

To me, Dean’s most prominent quality is his ability to dream. His dreams are big, full of heart, compassion and a commitment to a more prosperous life for everyone–through the wonders of science, technology, and engineering.

FIRST stands for: For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology. By 1992, Kamen was becoming increasingly concerned about our ability to effectively compete in business given our declining ability to educate students in science and technology. Kamen and his friend, Dr. Woodie Flowers, had a wild idea: create a competition–now a “coopertition”–where teams of high school students, working closely with mentors, design and build a robot, in a six week period, then compete both regionally and nationally. Flowers had been doing this with Scientific American Frontiers for twenty years and Kamen built on this experience when he founded FIRST.

FIRST is about the robot. Every year, in early January, the game season is launched. Each team gets a kit of parts, a rule book and, working with mentors, has six weeks to design and build a robot optimized for great game play. Experienced teams often start the process at the beginning of the school year, learning design, shop, and project management skills that will support them to hit the ground running as soon as the kickoff wraps.

Actually, it’s not about the robot at all. The robot Is the point of focus. The actual game is about play, hands-on learning, teamwork, mentorship, and discovering new things about yourself. In the decade plus I’ve been involved in FIRST, the most common and powerful threads are the stories of students who discovered a passion for science, technology, or engineering through FIRST and the students who thought they were total failures, and then found themselves to be capable team members and capable individual contributors on a FIRST team.

Flowers sums it up like this, “FIRST is about re-inventing self-image which includes being in the mainstream of what’s going on. It allows kids to re-invent themselves and realize they’re now in the game, fully capable of doing many things they previously thought only others might do.” The experience turns out to be as powerful for mentors as it is for students.

Ken Streeter of BAE Systems, a developer of software for complex avionics and one of the largest corporate contributors and “strategic partners” of FIRST, talked about the benefits of his company’s engagement in FIRST:

“There are many instances where BAE Systems gained greatly from participation in a tangible way. FIRST experiences led to innovative approaches and specific solutions. In particular, the speed of development in FIRST provides good archetypes for faster prototyping and decision-making. The cycle of perception, analysis and control in FIRST systems are similar to that of any complex system today.”

Streeter cited numerous examples of conversations such as, “You know, we tried something like this in FIRST and it worked well. The creation of small, fast moving and effective teams is the canonical FIRST model. The benefits of FIRST sponsorship are manifest and numerous.”

FIRST is not just for nerds, though the nerds play a central role. Teams need project management, communications, logistics, and a variety of competencies that complement the engineering and build efforts.

Coopertition (similar to the word “cooptition,” used in the business context) is central to FIRST, and is used to describe competing in a way that both parties win. This is coupled with a value that is fundamental to FIRST, and can be summed up in a phrase coined by Dr. Woodie Flowers: gracious professionalism.

It’s hard to create a game and rule set in which coopertition pays without distorting things to the point where it’s hard to understand, and there’s a healthy discussion in the FIRST community about this. What’s clear to everyone in the game is this: blowing out an opponent is a losing strategy.

Here’s a piece of a discussion from the Chief Delphi forum, alive with chatter since the Breakaway game was revealed on January 9.

In 2010, 1809 teams and over 200,000 students are participating with FIRST teams around the world. Kamen assigned homework to all of us this year: It’s time to make FIRST a spectator sport! He wants to infect the masses with a spirit of play, invention and innovation. A Hollywood Director and the Director of Technical Support from Cirque du Soleil were added to the Game Design Committee in an effort to make the game as fun to watch as it is to play.

This year’s game with its bumps, bars, and balls is sure to feature robot flipping and crazy arm contraptions. I can’t wait to see how the students decorate the underside of their robots this year. Lots of opportunity for exciting flips!

Please check the schedule and mark your calendar to join us at a FIRST Regional Competition this March 2010. The most exciting time to join: Elimination Rounds on the Saturday of competition, noon until 4 pm.

See you there!