Launching Young Engineers

Team 4030, Null Pointer Exception from Seattle's Ingraham High School, at FRC launch day 2013

Team 4030, Null Pointer Exception from Seattle’s Ingraham High School, at FRC launch day 2013

The best way to make sure the current and future problems of the world get addressed is to educate the next generation, and get them inspired to take those problems head on.

In 1989 Dean Kamen, a prolific and quite successful inventor (the Segway, the first small insulin pump and most recently the Sling Shot water purification system) started an organization to do just that. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) takes the model of sports teams and competitions into the world of engineering. They provide opportunities for kids in elementary school up to high school to work with a team to solve an engineering challenge, then compete with other teams to try their solutions out.

In the last 23 years FIRST has seen exponential growth. In the 2011-2012 season more than 280,000 students, from over 60 countries, participated in teams. The events are fun, energetic culminations of months of work by the teams. Having done one event, most students go on to do more. Not all of the kids go on to engineering careers, but they all go into their lives with more appreciation of science and technology, and with more skills at problem solving and working together. An emphasis on ‘Gracious Professionalism’ is one of the most important features of the competitions. You get more points for helping other teams and participants out than you do for just solving the technical challenge.

This morning my son and I got up at 5 am to get to the launch of the 2013 First Robotics Competition launch. This is his second year on a FIRST team, but his first year with the High School FRC team (yes, the one pictured above!). He was excited enough about this to make sure we were OUT THE DOOR by 6:08, with everything in the car. For him the excitement is (and I’m surmising here, since he didn’t tell me this) about getting to do what he is passionate about  – programming and robots – with a team. He isn’t thinking about his future career, or getting into a great college, or developing specific skill sets. That’s what I, his mother, am thinking about. And he isn’t thinking about developing a culture of creative thinking and engineering skills to tackle global problems. That’s what I, his mother and the writer who started this blog, and all the mentors are thinking about. If it weren’t so flipping cool and fun you might say we were tricking these kids into taking on world challenges.

Well, maybe that’s what we are doing, and maybe that is the brilliance of Dean Kamen’s idea. With the rise of technology as a dominant force in our culture, and with the astounding incomes of so many people working with various technologies, it doesn’t really take something like FIRST to inspire kids like my son to work in these fields. But the FIRST programs, and others like them, give these kids, and others who wouldn’t necessarily have gone in this direction, a place to do meaningful, playful work that gives them the skills they will need way before they know they will need them.

And it does another thing. Not only did over 280,000 students participate in FIRST last year. Over 100,000 mentors, teachers, parents and administrators also participated – not just dropping their kids off at a high tech daycare, but calling forth their own desire to participate in furthering education, supporting their kids and solving those pesky issues facing the world.

Obviously I already have this on my radar, but I left the launch this morning feeling extra inspired. We aren’t all going to be Dean Kamens, or Bill Gates, or one of the other high profile high achievers in changing the world. But each one of us can do some small part in making our beautiful home planet a more beautiful, safe, clean, healthy place to be.

Great Idea: Inspire kids to gain the skills and passion to solve global problems
Practical Steps: Start a competition, start a team, support, participate in engineering as a team sport.

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