He started FIRST in 1989 to demystify engineering and grow a generation of innovators. “Too many high-school kids in this country, particularly women and minorities, drop out of science and math classes,” he says. “There’s no incentive, no encouragement.” Indeed, he argues, there are all sorts of subtle disincentives and discouragements. “Kids need access to challenging, hands-on projects that result in a tangible product. Instead of telling them why abstract concepts like algebra or trigonometry are important, science teachers should say, ‘Let’s build a Lego robot!’ With a little assistance, the kids build one and it solves a problem. Suddenly, they realize that math and science are very powerful tools. Suddenly, math and science are relevant and fun.”
Kamen envisions a time when youngsters revere pioneering scientists as much as, say, NBA superstars. “The one thing American culture celebrates is sports heroes,” he says. “Lots of athletic teenagers think they’re going to make a fortune by bouncing a basketball and becoming the next LeBron James. That’s not realistic for even the tiniest percentage of them. Becoming an engineer is.” Still, Kamen concedes the innate differences between classrooms and playing fields have helped make careers in sports more attractive than ones in tech. “When athletes work together, it’s called teamwork,” he says. “If you work together in science class, it’s called cheating.”
The Robotics Competition—FIRST’s equivalent of the major leagues—kicks off every January, when a committee of engineers reveals that year’s game and rules. Supervised by engineers, scientists or other adult mentors, teams of high-school students have six weeks to design and construct small, inelegant machines from kits. The only constraints are weight (the robot can’t exceed 150 pounds) and cost. (To mitigate economic, rather than engineering advantages, Kamen has established a kind of salary cap of $4,000 on additional parts.)
Though each team faces the same challenge, they devise vastly different design solutions. Local winners advance to one of the 58 regionals, where their bots battle for the chance to qualify for the finals in St. Louis. The championship is structured like March Madness, the NCAA Men’s Division I basketball tournament. Kamen calls it the “NCAA of smarts.” Each of the four divisions is named for a famous scientist (Archimedes, Curie, Galileo and Newton). The Final Four is played on the Einstein Field.
A recent Brandeis University study shows that kids who participate in robotics contests are more than twice as likely to pursue a career in science and technology, and nearly four times as likely to pursue one in engineering. “The robot is just a vehicle,” Kamen says. “In six weeks you can’t give a kid a meaningful education in robotics or technology or engineering. But by building robots, you can build self-confidence and a serious understanding of what life is like for people who work on and solve complex problems. For a lot of kids, robotics has the potential to change where they put their time and attention.”
On this particular January afternoon, about 750 kids from as far afield as Singapore are putting their time and attention into a FIRST tournament at the University of Delaware. A cross between a science fair and a “Big Bang Theory” costume ball, it’s one of the biggest single-day robotics events in the country. Entrants have come decked out as mad scientists, crash-test dummies and assorted grotesqueries that even Dr. Seuss wouldn’t have concocted.
Tinkertoy technology has transformed a field house into a veritable hardware emporium. Workshop cubicles are crammed with tawny ratchets and rusty wrenches; wide gray clusters of wheels, pulleys and extension arms; and everywhere, everywhere Legos. Banners bear team names like Bricktastic Builders, the Fellowship of the Brick, Lego-Nardo da Vinci.
Down on the Robotics Competition playing court, the most conspicuous confederacy—a quartet of New Jersey lads known as the Carbonauts—is clad in safety glasses, running shoes and what looks to be orange prison jumpsuits. “Legos inspire me and bring me back to reality,” says Ibrahim Elshahawi, a high-school senior planning a career in biomedical engineering. “I’ve learned that I can’t just build a robot. My ideas have to be more organized and sequential.”
The younger contestants are about half female. In the Robotics Competition, girls are few and far between. “Girls are more into aesthetics, logistical, detail-oriented,” offers a Carbonaut named Charles Verhoog. “We’re not into style points.”
“Guys are into smashing things,” says teammate C.J. Geering.