Tomorrow's Scientists and Engineers Begin with FIRST
By: Jim Hodges

They're high school students, organizing in teams, learning about fabrication, about public relations and computer programming, computer-aided design, electronics and animation.

And they're pointing toward January 9, at about noon, which is when all of that knowledge has to come together well, they're not sure what it's supposed to do yet.

Usually there are clues -- if you want to call them clues -- to the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics annual competition, which is held regionally in Richmond and other places around the country, then nationally in Atlanta.

David Holloway and Matt Reno.

The photo shows (left to right) David Holloway, a home schooled junior who takes courses at Thomas Nelson, and Matt Reno, a senior at Tabb High School. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Click image to enlarge
"Last year, there was a 'moonfish,' " Matt Reno, a senior at Tabb High School, offered at Tuesday's December Colloquium at the Reid Conference Center. He is part of the NASA Knights First Robotics Team 122, a group sponsored in part by Langley.

The "moonfish" might – but only might – have been because last year's game was a sort of basketball, played with robots with plastic wheels on a surface made slippery with "regolith." The moon has regolith, you see, and the slippery part might have been because of the moon's one-sixth gravity.

Was that it?

Reno and his partner at the controls of their robot demonstration on Tuesday, David Holloway, a home-schooled high school junior who is taking college classes at Thomas Nelson, shrugged.

The colloquium was a vast departure from the standard presentation by a distinguished lecturer in a technical or scientific field. Instead it included tomorrow's scientists and engineers. Statistics show that FIRST students are twice as likely as other students to pursue fields in science or technology, four times as likely to become engineers.

The NASA Knights gather twice weekly at New Horizons Regional Education Center in Hampton to hone their team skills until January 9, when time speeds up and everything else in their lives stops.

That's when they learn what the mission of their robot will be, and they gather a box of parts designed to accomplish that mission. But it's like a Christmas present without instructions. With the parts and a goal, and a great void in between, the imagination soars.

"No two robots ever look alike," said Jim Young, a retired NASA engineer who mentors the NASA FIRST Robotics Team 122.

That means it's open season on design and construction, and creative minds generate ideas that collide with each other for a spell.

"When teams get a picture of what the game is, they all get together and they start planning," said Joanne Talmadge, who heads the NASA Knight as a technology teacher at New Horizons. " 'How can we win? How can we earn points? How can we build a robot to earn those points?' "

There are only six weeks from the time they learn the game they'll play until they'll play it in real competition at the Siegel Center in Richmond. Later they'll play in Raleigh, N.C., and, they hope, in Atlanta.

"We have many ideas that are great ideas," said Reno. "Some of them are a bit more 'out there' than others. Everyone thinks 'my idea is great,' and then we'll start thinking about things and taking out the ones that are too easy, too simple, and the ones that are too hard, and we work with what we think we can accomplish in the time period."

The two days a week can become six, the two hours per meeting can become 12. Prototypes are tested and accepted or rejected or reworked to fit into a whole. The pace is relentless, the calendar seemingly racing toward the group."

It's one of the reasons for the order of march. "First, we build teams," Talmadge said. "Then we build robots."

The game earlier this year was to shoot "basketballs" in an opponent's basket. The Knights' 'bot gathered the "basketballs" from the floor, then brought them up a belt to a basket for scoring.

"I know we went through three-four ideas to get to this," Reno said.

That idea reached the semifinals in Richmond.

The value in FIRST is that it exposes students to others who appreciate science and technology, and it helps them learn team skills. Founder Dean Kamen talks of an environment in which young people "can learn to become science and technology heroes."

They can start by winning a game early next year. As soon as they know what the game will be.

NASA Langley Research Center
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor and Responsible NASA Official: H. Keith Henry
Editor and Curator: Denise Lineberry