Robots Building People

By Daniel R. Matlis

No it is not the title of the latest sci-fi blockbuster film, but one of the lessons I learned from FIRST.

Last week I had the opportunity; no the privilege, of being a judge at the “2008 New Jersey Regional FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC).”
FIRST.jpgFIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology.

The organization’s Mission is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication and leadership.

The FRC as “a unique varsity sport of the mind designed to help high-school-aged young people discover how interesting and rewarding the life of engineers and researchers can be.  The FIRST Robotics Competition challenges teams of young people and their mentors to solve a common problem in a six-week timeframe using a standard “kit of parts” and a common set of rules.”

So why did a group of High School students building Robots inspire me?

I was inspired by their understanding and application current science and technology, the innovative thinking teams and individuals used to solve problems, and their passion.

I was also impressed by the level of “coo-petition” (a combination of cooperation and competition) at FIRST.  Although teams compete fiercely in the ring, in the pits they gladly give away knowledge and spare parts to help another team. I heard of the story of the team that lent a part to a rival, only to be beat by them in the final match.

At the FIRST event I saw what six weeks of hard work, innovative thinking and passion can accomplish. There were over 90 unique solutions the proposed challenge offered by a wide variety of teams made of a most diverse group of people. From inner city to suburban high schools; well funded to the shoe string budgets; veterans to rookies; the guys from shop to the all female contingent from Canada. It was a kaleidoscope of thoughts, ideas, colors and flamboyant team uniforms all reveling in the joy of Science and Technology.

Finding the solutions to today’s complex problems require innovation, whether relating to the environment, energy or healthcare, will require a leap in our understanding of current science and technology, innovative thinking, and a healthy dose of passion.

As I heard many times over the competition, FIRST is not about people building Robots, but Robots building people.

FIRST afforded me the opportunity to experience “pay forward” in a new way. I saw Students who became teachers, Team members are now mentors, and robots saved shop class.

I would strongly encourage you to learn and get involved in this meaningful endeavor. It is a great way to give back to the community, inspire and be inspired. You might even meet the future scientist or engineer that will find a way to reverse global warming, find a clean and cheap, renewable energy source or find the cure for the common cold.

Thanks to the wonderful volunteers who contribute their time to make FIRST a success, and thank you to the Robots for building such great people. My gratitude goes to Traci and Donald for giving the honor to participate in this worthwhile event.
To learn more about FIRST visit their website at

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