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STEM Competitions Inspire Next-Gen Techies

Published Friday Nov 9, 2018

Author Melanie Plenda

Students participating in the FIRST Robotics Competition Granite State event on March 3, 2018. Courtesy of FIRST.

“I started FIRST because I was worried the need for technologists would dramatically outstrip the [number of] kids excited about it, and the country would be at risk of losing its leadership in the world,” says Dean Kamen of his inspiration to launch For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology—a LEGO and robotics-centered engineering program and competition—in 1989. “I started FIRST to increase the pipeline of kids that would become the technologists and leaders of the future.”

The program is geared to inspire students worldwide to pursue studies and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. It does so by helping communities set up FIRST teams with adult mentors who help students tackle the annual challenges issues by FIRST. Students in kindergarten through middle school can participate in challenges that involve motorized LEGO elements, while students in middle and high school are challenged to design, build and program a robot.

FIRST has “a considerable amount” of data to show that every year a child is involved in the program, the more they learn and the more engaged they become, says Frank Grossman, director of FIRST NH (the state chapter of FIRST). Further, he says, while they learn about robotics on these teams, they are also picking up a number of 21st century skills such as communication, time management and working on a team. Kamen says more than one million students around the world have participated in FIRST. “We are now in 60,000 schools. We have every responsible, forward-looking tech company pouring resources into FIRST, as they know it’s a great investment to secure their future workforce,” says Kamen.

Students participating in the FIRST Robotics Competition Granite State event on March 3, 2018. Courtesy of FIRST.

FIRST has also developed partnerships in the state to help more students access its programs. In 2017, FIRST collaborated with the NH Department of Education to establish the NH Robotics Education Fund. The fund initially made $375,000 available to help public and charter schools in NH launch their own robotics teams. The fund received grant applications from 153 schools totaling more than $800,000, so the NH Department of Education worked with federal partners to secure additional grant funding.

FIRST recently teamed with Gov. Chris Sununu, the University System of NH, and the Community College System of NH to present The Governor’s Cup, a one-day event to provide 2018-2019 FIRST Robotics Competition teams an off-season competition. The competition, which was held Oct. 13 at Plymouth State University, offered free tuition for a semester to up to 50 high school seniors who participate in the Governor’s Cup.

Nationally, to celebrate FIRST’s 30th anniversary next year, the theme for the competitions will be FIRST Launch 2019, which will be related to space and the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

Another program aimed at sparking kids’ interest in high-tech fields is the Cyber Robotics Coding Competition. This competition was launched by Coder Z in Amherst, a subsisdiary of Intelitek, a Derry-based firm that designs high-tech educational and training programs for middle schools, high schools, universities and technical training centers.  

Participants in Intelitek's Cyber Robotics Coding Competition. Courtesy of Intelitek.

Aimed at middle school students and educators, this competition gives them a chance to learn how robots work, build coding-robotics skills of real or virtual 3D robots, and expand their knowledge of STEM careers.  

The Cyber Robotics Coding Competition, a collaboration with the NH Department of Education, drew more than 2,600 middle school participants last year.

This year, Ido Yerushalmi, CEO and president of Intelitek, says they are taking the competition national, where it is expected to draw participants from 11 states, including NH.

“We are looking at having more than 50,000 students this year that are going to be competing,” Yerushalmi says. “That’s going to be very significant. And that came out of New Hampshire. How neat is that?”

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