Varsity Sport for the Mind
Gary Parr | April 12, 2017
Lack of skilled workers is an urgent topic of discussion these days. It came up more than once in Detroit at the recent Manufacturing in America 2017 conference, sponsored by Siemens, Alpharetta, GA, and Electro-Matic Products Inc., Farmington Hills, MI. Two issues are at play. One is the short-term need for people who don’t exist. That’s a tall hurdle to clear. The other is long-term development. That solution involves a shift in culture at our schools and time for students to graduate and enter the workforce.
The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition is one program that is helping accomplish that culture change and facilitating the needed education. The robotics program celebrated its 25th year of existence in 2016 and is one of four programs offered by the FIRST organization. If you’re connected in some way to those involved or have school-aged children, you’ve likely heard of the program or may have attended an event.
Doug Williams, coach of the TigerTronics Team 2053 from Vestal and Edicott high schools in New York, shares his experiences helping students enjoy and benefit from participation in the robotics competitions.
I encountered the FIRST program a few months ago in a passing conversation with my friend Christine Williams, who mentors her son’s FIRST Lego League Gelinas team, based on Long Island. Christine’s brother Doug coaches the TigerTronics Team 2053 group, made up of students from Vestal and Endicott high schools, also in New York.
While I found the program interesting because it involves my friend, her son, education, and technology, I was intrigued because the competitions are such a big deal. This year’s global championships will be held April 19 to 22 at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center and April 26 to 29 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
I didn’t fully realize the power of this program until I talked with the students who were exhibiting at the Manufacturing in America conference. Two teams had tabletop exhibits. The Robostangs, Northville, MI, sponsored by several corporations, including Siemens and Electro-Matic, and the ThunderChickens (“Engineering new ways to cross the road”), from Sterling Heights, MI. Both teams have had notable competition success in recent years.
Talking to team members gave me a full appreciation of this program and what it is doing for students who normally wouldn’t get recognized because they aren’t skilled at kicking or throwing a ball. The students I met were excited and absolutely energized about what they are doing, under the pressure of competition, with their mechanical and electronics knowledge. They’re also learning real-world workplace skills such as fund raising, money management, business/sponsor relationships, logistics, purchasing and parts management, and, of course, reliability and maintenance.
If you’re not already involved, I encourage you to find a way to support a FIRST program through your local school/team. If one doesn’t exist, maybe start one? The students have to raise money to buy all of the materials they use for their robots. These things are not kits they buy from Amazon. They also need spare parts and, I’m sure, have travel expenses. Maybe you or your company would be willing to sponsor a local team?
Everyone is looking for skilled workers and will be for the foreseeable future. You can play a part by supporting FIRST and similar programs. They’re developing manufacturing skills that will be in demand for years to come.