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January 30, 2008
Column #1,379
Advance for Feb. 2, 2008
Teaching Science & Gracious Professionalism
by Mike McManus

BALTIMORE - Last Saturday I witnessed 700 kids aged 9-14 competing with shrieks of delight and joy in contests with robots that they had constructed. There were no tears by the losers. Why? 

Really, all were winners. As one girl exulted, "It will help me to be a better person. I can set higher goals for myself and learn to achieve them better because I know I can do it." She even saw how what she learned could make her employable. "I want to support myself, so I don't have to depend on other people. I can help support my family when I have one."

Coming in first is less important than learning one can build a robot out of LEGOS that will move in any direction, push plastic trees from one side of the board to another, pick up a model car and move it, lasso three rings of "corn stalks" and move them, place a "hydro-dam" over both banks of a section of a river drawn on the board plus seven similar tasks.

And do all this in 2.5 minutes! As two students manipulate the robot, five to eight members of each team cheer from the sidelines.

Marco Ciavolino, a proud father of several students competing in different age groups and a computer scientist who coached four "FIRST LEGO League" teams (, asserted, "It turns out that humans like a really tough challenge. FIRST has proven unambiguously that if you create an environment in which the right stuff is celebrated, they compete like crazy, but treat each other well in the process. It is a really good thing."

Students are not told how to build the robots, but are sent a box of parts with no instructions.  Each robot looks different.  One had rings that could be lowered to lasso corn stalks, while others used a clip-on L-shaped arm.

This year the students also had to conduct an energy audit of a building in their city and advise its owners how to reduce its energy consumption. Calvert Junior High School students told a library it could save 35% of its electric bill by turning off computers not in use. Homeschoolers in Harford County built a replica of an 1870 boarding house, examined an updated version, and quantified the value of various forms of insulation.

This year there are 10,000 FIRST LEGO teams in 38 countries with 106,000 students and a junior version for 5,000 6-9 year-olds.  There are 1,500 FIRST Robotics Competition teams of 37,500 high school kids who build large robots with 400 parts costing tens of thousands that race around a 26 foot by 54 foot track, pushing balls over and under an overpass.

After statewide competitions, 10,000 kids go to the Georgia Dome for National Championships.  The competition is not just about skill in manipulating robots, but also about that year's research project, the kids' ability to describe the design aspects of research and robots and the teamwork of each group. 

One father said, "Ten or 20 years from today some of these kids will cure AIDS or cancer. Some will win a Nobel Prize or build an engine that does not pollute. Probably one of them will do something spectacular they would not have done it without this.  These kids are the future, and we are part of it by helping them figure out what to do with their lives."

However, how many schools are getting kids excited about math and science?

One African American boy summed up the problem succinctly: "There are way too many kids saying I want to go into the NBA or the NFL.  I don't hear kids saying, "I want to be an engineer."

That's what troubled Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).  He is a physicist, entrepreneur and inventor, best known for the Segway PT, an electronic self-balancing human transporter used by airport police. He created IBOT, a wheelchair that can go up steps, the first insulin pump, and has 400 patents.

His vision for FIRST is "to transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated. We are helping young people see scientists and engineers in the same light as their traditional heroes in sports and entertainment."  How?  "Giving kids a hands-on experience that allows them to use their imaginations and creativity in combination with science and technology to solve a real-world problem is empowering."

He says it also fosters "well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication and leadership." He's raised $28 million from corporations for this work.

Why not get your school to compete next year? Go to

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