STEM-based learning activities are booming in the Huntsville & Madison area, and robotics is a classic way for kids to be introduced to technology and other STEM-related disciplines. But where do you go if your child’s school doesn’t offer robotics? FIRST® Robotics is a good place to start and “it’s as close to real-world engineering as a student can get.”
What is FIRST?
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an international organization for kids K-12 that believes robotics is about “more than robots.” Of course kids learn about engineering principles such as designing, building, and testing while making their robots, but also about life/career skills like teamwork, innovation, communication, basic business principles, and time management. Participants even have access to college scholarships.
Finding a FIRST Robotics Team
If your child’s school doesn’t have robotics as a class, you can always form your own community team or you can find a community team that’s accepting members. One local team with some openings is the FTC Browncoats. The FTC in their name stands for First Tech Challenge (it’s the level at which they compete: 7th-12th grade) and “Browncoats” refers to their Firefly fandom. The team transitioned from First Lego League 3 years ago to FTC and are now in their 4th year of competition.
The team is guided by two coaches, while parents and local businesses also mentor team members to help them develop STEM skills and prepare for competition. During this competition season, the team is working with AvaLAN Wireless, Raytheon, the Huntsville Ham Radio Club, and Pathfinder (among other local companies) to help see their project idea realized. Community involvement is an important component to the team’s success.
More than Engineering
However, the challenge is more than just an engineering task. The team is expected to set their own deadlines, write their own documentation, do their own marketing, and fund-raise. Although the kids run the process of creation and execution of ideas “parent involvement is key,” says Faye Lynn Thompson, the team’s coach:
The True Spirit of Teamwork
But the teamwork doesn’t stop with the team and their mentors and coaches. FIRST has a theme of cooperation and it makes sure that “Gracious Professionalism” is embodied by all the teams, so in the spirit of cooperation, the team can ask other teams for ideas and vice versa. “We know several of the teams and we ask them how they would solve a particular issue when we’ve run out of ideas,” says Tala Thompson, FTC Browncoats team member. “The FIRST teams want to see everyone do well. It’s competitive, but we’re all doing this to learn.” Thompson says asking questions is important: “It really helps everyone.”
As an example, John Bateman, another FTC Browncoats team member, said during one of the Finals they had a problem with their robot and a team they were competing against actually helped the FTC Browncoats fix their robot. “They wanted to compete as much as we did and, if we were eliminated because our robot had broken down, they wouldn’t have been able to,” says Bateman. “So, they helped us fix it.”
An Award-winning Team
The team has seen success. This year, they won two awards at two state competitions where they bested 31 other teams for the Think Award (best documentation of robot progression). At a local qualifier, they also received the Inspire Award. This award goes to the team that performs well in all categories of the competition, best demonstrates “Gracious Professionalism,” and acts as ambassadors of FIRST to their community.
The FTC Browncoats are accepting new team members for this competition season. Information about how to join the team will be discussed at an informational meeting held in Madison in July. The FTC Browncoats are also hoping to mentor groups that decide to start their own teams.
Details & More Info
- To learn more about FIRST visit www.firstinspires.org
- The FTC Browncoats will be hosting information meetings about FIRST and their team on Sunday, July 17th, 2:00 – 4:00 pm at the Madison Library.
- If you are interested in joining the team, send and email to FTCBrowncoats@gmail.com or fill out this interest survey.
Karen Gann had a marketing communications career in high tech before taking a sharp turn into stay-at-home-momdom and homeschooling. She grew up in the Tennesse Valley, lives in Huntsville, and is wife to the wittiest man alive, mother to two head-strong and independent girls (they're adorable, really), and human caregiver to the cats. Addictions include Facebook, Pinterest, NYC's Radio Lab, coffee, food, and politics (not necessarily in that order but sometimes all at the same time). She's also the marketing director for Pandia Press in her spare time.