A glass case in the foyer of Westford School displays gleaming statues celebrating its students’ basketball and football tournament wins. However, on the top shelf is a row of unusual-looking trophies, made from bright yellow LEGO pieces.
Primary and middle school students received these prestigious accolades in FIRST LEGO League Robotics tournaments, which require the same hard work, cooperation and determination as traditional athletics.
Over the past decade, robots have been woven into the fabric of a small Chittenden County Public School, thanks to a group of dedicated volunteers, mostly parents, who run an after-school club and occasionally teach tech-themed lessons in the classroom. One of the volunteers, Mark Drapa – father of three and electrical engineer at a semiconductor company GlobalFoundries – He said he is proud of the technical culture that is rooted in society.
Drapa said many of Westford’s students are involved in robotics such as playing soccer. Not to mention, “It’s totally cool to wear your robots shirt to school.”
Westford’s enthusiasm for robotics sets it apart. Many Vermont schools—especially in less densely populated and under-resourced parts of the state—do not even offer this activity. But that is likely to change thanks to a three-year, $375,000 grant from Argosy FoundationFounded by John Appel, a businessman and philanthropist who lives in Shelburne.
The funds are intended to help remove some of the barriers to starting bot programs by providing financial support and technical assistance to new teams. I will enable First in Vermonta nonprofit that started last year to support robotics programming for youth, hire a government coordinator to raise awareness of FIRST programs, recruit and train trainers, and promote collaboration between robotics teams.
FIRST, which stands for “to inspire and recognize science and technology,” has three campuses: FIRST LEGO League for elementary and middle school students, and FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition, both for high school students. The program was started 25 years ago in Manchester, New Hampshire, by engineer and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, known for inventing the Segway and an electric wheelchair called the iBOT.
Kamen and his assistant Woody Flowers, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wanted to bring the excitement of sports competitions to STEM or STEM. So, they designed a program with a game-like atmosphere that features bots competing in a ring, along with human judges wearing black and white striped T-shirts and cheering on realistic spectators. FIRST calls itself a “collaboration,” not a competition, because teams work in alliances and must help each other out in order to achieve success. More than 600,000 students are now participating in 110 countries.
Vermont’s first team was formed in 2002, and the program has grown slowly but surely since then, with about 30 FIRST LEGO League teams, 18 FIRST Tech Challenge teams, and a handful of FIRST Robotics Competition teams now across the state. Not all are found in schools; Some are run by 4-H clubs, homeschooling groups, churches, and workspaces. The University of Vermont’s College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences outreach programs help organize the FIRST Tech Challenge, while the University of Norwich hosts the FIRST LEGO League state championship each year.
But John Cohn, Vermont’s senior board member and honorary fellow at IBM, said Vermont still lags behind much of the country, including New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The goal of the Argosy Scholarship is to raise Vermont’s student participation rate above the national average and maintain it there.
Cohn — who was notorious for wearing light-up goggles, silly head gear and a tie-dye outfit for competitions — believes Vermont’s “humour” makes it ripe for expansion into robotics programming. “There is a long tradition of Yankee ingenuity and problem-solving in a practical and open manner,” he said.
On a Tuesday evening in early October, this creation was on display in Westford. Eight fifth graders – members of one of the school’s five FIRST LEGO League teams – gather around a long tabletop game board dotted with 15 colorful LEGO gear. Team members, who call themselves Interplanetary Pizza Pandas, meet twice weekly from September through January to build and create token for a robot that can complete a series of tasks that include pushing, pulling, lifting, dragging and flipping LEGO structures. Each successfully completed task is worth a set number of points.
In February, Westford teams will go to statewide competition, where they will put their robot to the test alongside teams from across Vermont. The team with the highest honors will go to the World Championships in Houston, a Super Bowl-like event where competitors dress up in costumes and typically turn into throngs of fans to cheer on the players.
Westford students are encouraged to try different assignments throughout the season. In this practice, fifth grader Owen Million used Scratch, a drag-and-drop coding language, to program a robot to perform a series of actions, while classmates David McValney and Keith Collins leaned on the machine — which LEGO calls “intelligent bricks” with a motor and wheels. The students installed a square attachment they had built on the front of the robot to enable it to perform some tasks.But when they tried to make the robot work, it veered in the wrong direction.The students went back to their laptop for troubleshooting.
Drapa said learning from mistakes is an essential part of FIRST Robotics. “If it doesn’t work, go find out what works,” he said. “What kind of experience is a win.”
On the other side of the table, Inez Medick and Maeve LaBossiere, fresh from soccer coaching, worked on programming a separate bot.
“It’s really fun making models and coding,” Medic said. When her older brother participated in the FIRST LEGO League years ago, she participated in his competitions.
“I have seen [game] The board, projects, stuff, and… I wanted to do that.”
Both Medick and LaBossiere hope to continue participating in robotics when they get older. Because of the continuity of programming in their school district, they will have this opportunity.
At Essex High School, science teacher Joseph Chase started one of the FIRST Tech Challenge teams in the state 15 years ago. This year, nearly 20 students — members of the high school’s HiveMind Robotics team — got together three times a week at school to build and code robots using CAD software and 3D-printed parts.
At this point in the season, Essex students are still in the prototyping stage, trying to figure out the best design for this year’s special challenge, which involves having robot place cones on poles of varying heights. The challenges change from year to year, but the game always takes place on a 12-square-foot game board bordered by foot-high walls.
Sophomores Max Drapa (son of Westford coach), Mason Meirs, Cheru Berhanu and junior Matthew Corneau are all in their second year of the FIRST Tech Challenge. In early September, their team at U-32 Middle and High School in Montpellier gathered with three other high school groups—including last year’s state champions, Champlain Valley Union High School RoboHawks—to watch the video revealing this year’s challenge, Cones digging on pillars. Then, after eating pizza, the teams brainstormed how to approach the task. Collaborating with other teams is part of the “dignified professionalism” that FIRST Robotics says is the focus of its programs. “When you’re in competition, it’s not like, ‘Oh, you lost,'” Max Drapa said. “You actually learn from him and meet other teams and see what they’ve done.”
“You end up making really good contacts with competitors,” Berhanu added.
Their coach also sees the program as a workforce development initiative.
Chase connects his students with local businesses during the season, hoping that they will form connections that might lead to internships or jobs.
“One of the best exports from Vermont is our kids,” Chase said. “They get a good education here, and then they leave.” But he added that local companies such as Beta Technologies and GlobalFoundries are looking for young people who have the technical skills FIRST is developing.
Cohn, who is now in BETA, can support that. He recently conducted an informal survey of his co-workers and found that 17 of them had participated in the FIRST programs that had sprung up.
Students can unlock higher education opportunities by participating as well. Colleges, including MIT and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, are giving away more than $80 million in scholarships to high school students who have participated in FIRST programs, according to the organization.
Abele, co-founder of Boston Scientific—a medical device company that makes coronary stents, defibrillators, and defibrillators—is an ardent supporter of FIRST. He learned about the program from Kamen decades ago and served as the president of the organization from 2002 to 2010.
“I think it’s really important for all people to be technically literate,” Abelle said. “This is a fun way to do learning. You kind of do it without knowing you’re doing it.”
Just as important, he said, the program develops the social and emotional skills needed to work well with others.
For Max Drapa, that teamwork is one of the best things about FIRST.
“In class, you might have two group projects,” he said. But the FIRST Tech Challenge is a “big team project”.
His colleague Cornu added, “I think we became good friends from this.”
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