Machines and a Mission: One Student's 'FIRST' NASA Experience
Jordan Greene has been tinkering with electronic and machines since he was a toddler. Now Greene, a ninth-grader at New Century Technology High School in Huntsville, Ala., gets to work with more sophisticated machines: robots.

Greene is a rookie member of his school’s FIRST -- or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology -- Robotics team, which will compete this spring in the annual national engineering contest. Every year, students from across the country and around the world -- mentored by engineers from government, academia and industry -- design, build and operate robots for the annual sports-based competition, which lets them solve real-world engineering challenges in a competitive environment.

Jordan Greene, right, a ninth-grader at New Century Technology High School in Huntsville, Ala., and member of the school's FIRST Robotics Team, is interviewed by writer Grant Thompson. Image to right: Jordan Greene, right, a ninth-grader at New Century Technology High School in Huntsville, Ala., and member of the school's FIRST Robotics Team, is interviewed by writer Grant Thompson. Image credit: NASA/MSFC

Greene -- a 15-year-old with wire-framed glasses and curly brown hair -- wouldn't mind becoming an engineer, scientist or even a technician, but believes he has another calling to answer first. Since middle school, Greene has been active in the youth ministry program at Trinity United Methodist Church in Huntsville. He enjoys studying high-tech subjects like engineering and science -- but his dream is to prepare for a life in the ministry.

No matter what field he ultimately chooses, he's not going to let something like cerebral palsy stand in his way.

Using computer software donated by a company that specializes in graphics software for mathematics and science teachers to help him complete the necessary formulas, graphs and equations, Greene is a programmer for his FIRST Robotics team -- one of five competing teams sponsored this year by the Academic Affairs Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. As a programmer, Greene is part of the group responsible for making sure the robot's software works. To date, they have been busy writing thousands of lines of computer code that will control the robot's response to the operator’s controls. It's a task Greene loves.

"Computers and robots are fun to work with, and I've learned a lot about mechanics and how things work together," Greene said, during a recent robotics demonstration in Huntsville with other FIRST teams from the area. "From the start, the entire experience of being on the team has been cool. I've made a lot of new friends in the process."

The FIRST Robotics competition was founded in 1992 by inventor Dean Kamen of Manchester, N.H. More than 22,000 students and 925 student teams are expected to participate in the 2005 competition, including more than 200 teams sponsored by NASA field centers. The game requirements change annually, forcing teams to adapt their robots to the contest specifications. This year, teams around the country will compete in regional contests starting March 3, vying to qualify for the national championship event starting April 21 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Greene and his team will compete in the Palmetto Regional in Columbia, S.C., starting March 31 and at the national competition in April.

Having transferred to New Century in 2004 specifically to join the robotics team, Greene was eager to follow in the footsteps of his brother Chris, a FIRST team member during his own high school career from 1999 to 2003.

But Greene plans to make the experience his own, and his dedication shows. "Jordan has been a tremendous asset to his team and to the mission of FIRST Robotics," said Sandra Beall, special education inclusion teacher and team coach and faculty advisor at New Century. "He has shown the team and other students at the school the number of different ways people can contribute. Whether it's hands-on work, brainstorming ideas or providing simple encouragement, people play different roles. Jordan is a great example of that.

"He doesn’t let physical limitations keep him from being part of the team," Beall said.

On the surface, there seems little correlation between the high-tech engineering world and life in the ministry, but Greene sees an opportunity to connect two drastically different environments. "I love mission work and helping people in need, and that's what I want to do in the future," he said. "You can do so much with engineering -- build better housing for those who have nothing, or supply clean drinking water where there’s a shortage. The mission-related work to be done is endless."

Greene will not be able to travel to the regional FIRST event because of academic responsibilities at school. But he remains confident New Century's team can hold their own against others from across the country.

"We've worked hard on the robot, and we learned so much from the experience of working together to succeed as a team," he said. "I have faith it will pay off."

Regardless of how New Century's FIRST Robotics team performs, that faith is sure to fuel Jordan Greene's ambition well into the future.

Martin Jensen
Marshall Space Flight Center