If you have not heard about the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) programmes, you need to pay attention. FIRST is an international youth organization that operates the FIRST Robotics Competition, FIRST LEGO League, FIRST Lego League Junior, FIRST LEGO League Junior Discovery Edition, and FIRST Tech Challenge competitions.
The organization was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen – the inventor of the Segway and the iBot Wheelchair (similar to the one used by Dr Stephen Hawkins) and his partner, Woodie Flowers a former professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Its philosophy is expressed by the organization as coopetition and gracious professionalism. FIRST also operates FIRST Place, a research facility at FIRST headquarters in Manchester, New Hampshire, where it holds educational programs and day camps for students and teachers. It is a non-profit public charity cooperation which licenses qualified teams usually affiliated with schools to participate in its annual competitions.
The FIRST programmes are designed to inspire students to become engineers or pursue careers in the field of technology and science. Currently there are more than 3 700 high school teams totalling 46 000 students from across the world, participating the highest scale competition which is the FRC (First Robotics Challenge).
In the years since the inception of FIRST, many schools around the globe have become involved in these robotics programmes. In South Africa, specifically in Nelspruit, the FIRST LEGO League which focusses more on primary school students particularly has been a very popular annual event with teams reaching the semi-finals and even finals of the World Championship.
The teams are scored not only on the abilities of their robots in completing the various challenges, but also on other factors such as marketing, design, engineering and outreach programmes which the children in the teams are to plan, present and successfully complete as a team without the assistance of adults. Each team has a marketing lead, software lead, hardware lead and programme manager. The teams each have captains as well.
During the school break this past month, a team from Austin, Texas in the United States visited Tzaneen as part of their outreach programme. The team, QuadX, from the Vandergrift High School were runners up at the FTC World Championships last year and they came to Tzaneen to facilitate a camp with local school teams in order to promote the FTC programme.
QuadX is a robotics team affiliated to the Viperbots league which is a programme run by their high school where students are selected to join one of the robotics teams each year. Currently there are around 10 teams in each of the FIRST leagues competing in this schools Viperbots programme.
The entire trip, including an itinerary, the hardware and building materials was arranged by the children in the team who drew up business plans which they presented to companies such as HP which resulted in all the materials including laptops and two 3D printers being sponsored to the local programme.
The local link came in the form of science educator and Rotarian, Peter Maleta, who is also the executive director of the Greater Tzaneen Community Foundation based outside Letsitele. Maleta has been involved in the FIRST programme for quite some time and arranged that six teams who have all competed in the First LEGO League in the past, participate in the camp.
These teams comprised of Grade 8 to Grade 10 learners from Ramoba, Matseutseu, Phusela, Napscom, Mabusha and Mafutjane High Schools in Tickyline, Lenyenye and Thabina. During the course of the week-long camp, the local teams were introduced to the finer mechanics of software development, basic Java programming, hardware engineering and assembly, 3D printing capabilities and media and marketing campaigns to finance their projects.
“The children have performed exceptionally well and many instances have far surpassed even my own expectations,” said a very satisfied Maleta. “It was great for them to be able to meet with like-minded children from the United States and learn from them. These children have now been exposed to technology they have never seen before such as 3D printers. I believe that this camp in particular has set into motion a way of thinking for these youngsters that will be of benefit to our society in the future.”
The six teams who were at the camp last week will be participating in the FCT Robotics Challenge this year in October. Their base of operations will be at the Greater Tzaneen Science centre in Lenyenye.
“It was a great trip for us and an absolute treat to meet up with these youngsters all the way here in South Africa. What will sit with me for always is the enthusiasm and hunger for knowledge we perceived from these childrem,” said QuadX coach, Mike Ferwada. “These children are bright and eager and this will go a long way to furthering the advancement of this programme.”
For more information on the FIRST programmes and challenges visit www.firstinspires.org and watch the Bulletin Facebook page for all the video interviews conducted with the QuadX team members.
Bulletin supports the FIRST programmes and it is this publication’s view that every child will benefit from their school registering and becoming involved in the robotics challenges. The programmes have proven results in improving the child’s overall logical thought ability and inter-social skills. We therefor challenge the primary and high schools of our area to get involved in the programme and let’s see if we can boast a world champion from the Mopani District in the foreseeable future. If the Nelspruit schools could do it then surely our schools can too.