As a technologist, entrepreneur and father, I sometimes worry we are raising our newest generation of young adults to be more consumers than creators of technology. But nothing puts this worry more at ease than attending this weekend’s North Shore District FIRST tournament in Reading, Massachusetts. If you’ve never attended a FIRST tournament, it’s like March Madness for high school robotics. You enter a school gym packed with 5000+ attendees, with a floor transformed into a competitive arena, and 40+ teams prepared to show off their robotic skills. Like all sporting events, these tournaments have exciting game play, cheering fans, animated referees, and nail biting moments. But unlike other sporting events, our “athletes” are robots created and operated by students.
The North Shore District event is one of over 2,600 FIRST tournaments happening across the world this year. If you are not familiar with FIRST, it is a 28 year old not-for-profit charity designed to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. The organization is stronger than ever, reaching 460,000 students, engaging 52,000 teams, and creating over 40,000 robots. This year the FIRST game is called Steamworks, and is based on airship adventure clubs from the steam powered era.
Our local North Shore tournament this weekend is sponsored by the NEFIRST, a non-profit that promotes FIRST in New England. Our host team for the event is the Reading Robockets, which consists of 43 students from Reading Memorial High School and 20 supporting mentors. The team operates like a tech startup— raising capital from sponsors, recruiting students, and working under a tight deadline to deliver a fully functional robot that competes in tournaments. The most successful teams can make it all the way to the World Competition in St. Louis, where they go head to head against the best teams from around the globe. But win or lose, every student walks away with knowledge, inspiration, and an enormous sense of accomplishment. It is inspiring to watch teenagers make their robotic ideas come to life using CNC machines, 3D printers, software, and their minds. It’s also impressive to watch them engender the ideals of FIRST by cooperating across teams – encouraging each other, sharing tools, and even lending a hand in “the pit” of other teams when required.
This year the Reading Robockets took a new approach to raising the sponsorship required to support their program: they reached out to Boston’s local tech community for help. Two of their local tech sponsors are located within blocks of each other in Boston’s Innovation District: Rethink Robotics and CloudHealth Technologies. To enlist the support of these sponsors, the Robockets came into Boston to learn about tech businesses and pitch companies on how they could help foster the next generation of engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs. And it looks like they put the sponsorship funds to great use, producing a fast and reliable robot that is performing well in early tournaments.
So if you want to be inspired, learn about FIRST, or just enjoy watching robots compete, I recommend taking time out of your busy weekend to come to Reading Memorial High School (62 Oakland Rd, Reading, MA 01867) for the North Shore District tournament. The opening ceremony for the event starts Saturday March 18th at 10:30 AM and runs until 8:00 PM, and then continues Sunday from 9:30 AM to 6:30 PM. It may not get the media attention of March Madness, but it’s as much fun to watch. And with the help of FIRST, we can all rest assured our newest generation of young adults will be creators – not just consumers – of technology.
About the Author
Joe Kinsella is the CTO and Founder of CloudHealth Technologies. In this role he focuses on enabling organizations to realize the full potential of cloud computing without having to sacrifice cost, availability, continuity, or service level. He believes in a new paradigm of cloud adoption, and sees CloudHealth bringing the cloud to the enterprise. Joe has 20+ years of experience in delivering commercial software for both startups and large enterprises, and was previously VP of Engineering at the Amazon-backed cloud archiving company Sonian, where he developed and managed large scale cloud infrastructure that spanned multiple public clouds. He was also a managing director at Dell, where he led global engineering teams delivering multiple software as a service (SaaS) products. Joe was also Vice President of Engineering at SilverBack Technologies, where he helped pioneer remote management software, acquired by Dell in 2007. He is an advisor to the University of Massachusetts Boston Entrepreneur Center, a member of the Forbes Technology Council, and blogs at High Tech in the Hub at http://hightechinthehub.com/.