What an afternoon of amazement and awe. So many abbreviated words and initials that mean so much more, but look like elements or cryptic codes of a secret society. It began with my wife Peggy. She and friends from her P.E.O. Chapter AY sisterhood group were interviewing young women for a chance at a PEO scholarship. One of the candidates talked about her dream of being an engineer. She was a member of SOTABots.
What is SOTABots?
“The SOTABots are a local robotics team combining students from Tacoma School of the Arts, Tacoma Science and Math Institute, and Stewart Middle School. Our team is a part of the FIRST Robotics organization, a worldwide association designed to get young adults involved in engineering. Every year, we design and build several robots to compete in various FIRST challenges. The mission of the SOTABots is to change the way society views education through implementing an innovative approach to learning.”
What is FIRST?
“FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. Based in Manchester, NH, the 501(c)(3) not-for-profit public charity designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills.
FIRST is More Than Robots. FIRST participation is proven to encourage students to pursue education and careers in STEM-related fields, inspire them to become leaders and innovators, and enhance their 21st century work-life skills.”
What is STEM?
“The United States has developed as a global leader, in large part, through the genius and hard work of its scientists, engineers, and innovators. In a world that’s becoming increasingly complex, where success is driven not only by what you know, but by what you can do with what you know, it’s more important than ever for our youth to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information. These are the types of skills that students learn by studying science, technology, engineering, and math—subjects collectively known as STEM.
Yet today, few American students pursue expertise in STEM fields—and we have an inadequate pipeline of teachers skilled in those subjects.”
What is the progression of FIRST?
LEGO® LEAGUE JR. K-4
Captures young curiosity by exploring real-world scientific challenges, learning teamwork, and working with motorized LEGO® elements.
LEGO® LEAGUE 4-8
Elementary and middle school-aged students research a real-world engineering challenge, develop a solution, and compete with LEGO-based robots of their own design.
TECH CHALLENGE 7-12
Teams of middle and high school-aged students are challenged to design, build, and program a robot to play a floor game against other teams’ creations.
FIRST ® ROBOTICS COMPETITION 9-12
High school-aged teams compete head to head on a special playing field with robots they have designed, built, and programmed.
What does STEM and FIRST have to do with real life?
I like the connection that Dr. Leigh Nathan, a FIRST Alumna from Connecticut has to say about her participation and inspiration. “I’m a psychiatrist and a proud product of FIRST. I participated in FIRST in high school and mentored in college at Northeastern University. FIRST was a prominent factor in my choice of college and major, as well as my decision to study medicine.
As a FIRST team member, I had spent enough time picking out bearings for robot arm assemblies to know a good bearing design when I saw one. One evening, I happened to take a look at my hand and realized that the finger joints are actually very impressive bearings. They’re self-lubricating, seemingly friction-less, and have a lifespan of upwards of a hundred years. In the same instant that I think of moving my fingers, they’ve already moved and with remarkable precision. How cool is it that? I was so struck by the mechanical elegance of the human body, that I decided to go to medical school and learn more about it.”
Without knowing hardly any of the above mentioned details and based solely on a Stadium High School student’s dream and her enthusiasm for robotics, we found ourselves driving to Covington on Saturday afternoon for a robotics competition. The event started at 9:00 am. Peg was told it might go on to 4:30. I was interested because my Rotary Club has been working with the Washington Science Olympiad. For the last two years Curtis High School has held a Science Olympiad. This year the tournament is being held on December 2nd. Knowing how sometimes community events tend to falter; in the back of my mind I was thinking “It’s just afternoon . . . probably only a few people showed up . . . we might see some little radio controlled robot cars running around a track or something . . . but most of the people have probably already gone home.”
As we approached Maple View Middle School, we could see cars parked all long the road. In the parking lot, many of the cars had trailers like you would see in the old days with a “funny car” or “dragster” inside them. We walked across campus and aimed for the gymnasium. Everything was in a flux of managed chaos. People walked around with dozens of pizza boxes to supply their teams. Duct tape was everywhere holding up signs. A double door divided robots and spectators. Eventually we were herded into a hallway and then back into the gym where every seat was taken on the bleachers. The bleachers faced a bustling center court of referees, camera people, team members and I don’t know how many others preparing for the next competition between teams of robots. When the competition began, robots began working amassing points on a scale beyond my comprehension.
I wandered away in the direction where we had entered. I followed carts, each loaded with a robot needing adjusting, or sometimes complete repair. Lifting these robots is at least a two person job . . . more like three people. This event was a long way from Robot Wars, but crashes, bumps, confrontations, mishaps and collisions happen during the event. I found another area with a stage and work area or “pit” for each team to work on their “bots.” Team members chatted with themselves or tweaked gears and settings. Most bots had stickers from sponsors. I was proud to see a SPEEA sticker. SPEEA is the union that deals with engineers and other professionals and their contract relationships with Boeing. We’ve done videos for them in the past to help with negotiations.
No one was unruly. I saw fake robots, hand puppets, and lots of smiles. It was a mixture of Middle Earth and girls’ bedrooms. Some people wore capes, some wore tu tus . . . some guys wore wigs, and everyone seemed to be engrossed in what they were doing . . . and on top of the world. And yet, in the middle of the seriousness there was a stuffed dog strapped onto the mechanisms of a competitive robot. I recognize the juxtaposition of fun, games, creativity . . . and learning.