02/01/2007

FIRST--Opening Doors to Technology Careers

By Barbara Bolin

The "quiet crisis" in American society was highlighted by Thomas Freidman in The World Is Flat. The lack of interest and participation of our young people in mathematics and science classes is of major concern, recently cited by the White House as an aspect of our education system that needs attention immediately. This crisis particularly affects women and minorities. So, as our current workforce ages and retires, there are too few younger engineers and technicians to replace them.

And that crisis is closely tied to the true emergency in our economy-- the need to resurrect and demonstrate the entrepreneurial characteristics that made the United States great!

Thank goodness for FIRST!

 

Founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) continues to help tens of thousands of young people to value themselves and education, and to make significant career decisions. These youngsters are playing major roles in the 21st century economy as they are being snapped up by colleges and employers across the country.

Dean realized that there is a way to combine exposure to technical careers and training in project management, teamwork, problem-solving, and a strong work ethic with fun. Each FIRST competition has the energy of a rock concert combined with a major sports event! Based on the idea of making scientists and engineers heroes to youngsters (to compete with their current heroes--professional athletes and entertainers), FIRST has now expanded to three extraordinary programs to accommodate students from age 6 though high school graduation.

The FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), and FIRST VEX Challenge (FVC) for high schoolers, and FIRST LEGO League (FLL) for middle school children are year-round programs that use robotics activities to demonstrate the application of mathematics, science, computer science, graphics, art, and other school subjects. Each program requires students to build computer-controlled robots, and to develop strategies to play specially-designed games. FLL also requires the students to compete with research projects, papers, and presentations.

 

Unlike televised robotics challenges, FIRST encourages "gracious professionalism" and competitors routinely demonstrate extraordinary levels of sportsmanship and assistance to others in rival teams. FIRST also emphasizes and encourages the inclusion of young women, girls, minority, and disadvantaged students. Across the country, there are now thousands of girls and young women involved with teams, some of whom compete on all-girl teams, and they are planning on careers in astrophysics, medicine, engineering, and similar fields. Young men admit that the girls bring good problem-solving and communication skills to the team, and they are focused on getting the job done. They give the young women credit for "thinking differently" than they do! Teams also include students with disabilities as there are multiple and various roles to be played in getting a successful robot to a competition.

FIRST is one of the best mentoring programs in the country. Teams are paired with professional adults, most of whom work as engineers, scientists, teachers, and technicians (and others come from non-technical fields). These adults advise students on the construction of the robot and play strategy, and they demonstrate that career opportunities exist if they pursue technical classes. Many Americans have no idea what an engineer or mathematician actually does every day! FIRST youngsters learn first-hand from the mentors. Their work on the team emphasizes what work entails and also the importance of staying in school, developing good problem-solving and team work skills.

In 1989, FRC hosted one competition in New Hampshire with only 24 robotics teams. In March 2007, there will be 37 regional competitions across the country involving more than 1300 teams and tens of thousands of students, teachers and mentors that will culminate in the Championships in Atlanta in April. Each Championship is an international event, usually featuring teams from Israel, Puerto Rico, Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and Ecuador.

In 2007, FIRST will host 30 FVC competitions, involving roughly 600 teams of high school students. FVC teams use a table-top robot built from a VEX kit that is less expensive to create and compete with than an FRC robot. The competition can serve as an introduction of students to the more demanding FRC games and competitions, but it is as effective in developing real-world career skills.

FLL is a truly international competition. Last year, more than 62,000 students participated from 31 countries. This year's competition is called Nano Quest and it requires students to explore nanotechnology, highlighting the diverse and positive ways it promises to enhance or replace existing technologies to solve global problems and create things never thought possible. As a result of previous FLL competitions, middle school students across the country hold patents for ideas developed during their research.

Through participation in FIRST, students can realize their newly-discovered career goals by pursuing post-secondary education. FIRST corporate sponsors provide more than $8 million in scholarships, and many companies that provide mentors for teams offer internships and possible future employment to FIRST students.

Brandeis University is conducting evaluations of FIRST and the results bear out what many of us have believed for years. Participation in FIRST increases interest in school classes, reduces drop-out rates, and increases enrolment in post-secondary education. It also results in more young women and minorities seeking careers in technical fields.


 

Dr. Barbara Bolin is a nationally recognized expert in economic development and a strong supporter of FIRST. She is the Managing Director of Bolin Enterprises, LLC (http://www.bolinenterprises.com/), and the Executive Director of the Career Readiness Certificate Consortium (http://www.crcconsortium.org/). For more information, visit http://www.usfirst.org/or contact Barbara at bolinb@earthlink.net or at 804-310-2552.


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