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FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a massive initiative taking place around the world that is aimed at getting kids more interested in STEM subjects through a variety of fun and interactive experiences. Many FIRST challenges and competitions took place at a recent Maker Faire in San Mateo, where I met with FIRST's Jill Wilker and Ken Johnson. They helped illustrate FIRST’s truly inspirational mission and vision.

Barry Matties: Jill, tell me a little about what you are doing here at this event.

Jill Wilker: We have a whole hall here at Maker Faire, where we are demonstrating the FIRST programs. We have three of the FIRST programs represented, with kids from high school through elementary school. We have FIRST LEGO League with our elementary kids where they build a LEGO robot, all autonomous, and solve a problem. The problem this past year was based around trash, so getting young middle school kids to think about why we are creating so much trash in the world and what can we do about it. It really makes them problem solvers along the way while playing with LEGOs, which is always a natural attracter for the kids.

Then we have FIRST Tech Challenge represented, where we're actually running an off-season competition. We have 14 of our local teams here who signed up to come back for a post-season event to replay FIRST Res-Q, where they're learning about issues around what happens in an avalanche. Things like, how do you save climbers and clean up debris after an avalanche? It gets the kids really thinking about real-world problems.

Then we have FIRST Robotics Competition, where last year they played a game around storming a castle, FIRST Stronghold, and now they're here demoing their robots all together and showing the progression of the programs. With me is Ken Johnson, who is also with the FIRST Tech Challenge program.

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Jill Wilker and Ken Johnson, FIRST

Matties: Ken, you're out of New Hampshire? Welcome to California, first of all.

Ken Johnson: Thank you. It's beautiful out here.

Matties: You're the director of the FIRST Tech Challenge. Tell us about that, please.

Johnson: FIRST is headquartered and founded out of New Hampshire, but we are global. We have about 400,000 students annually participating in our programs, with about 150,000 volunteers that make it all work. Jill and Mark Edelman run FIRST programs for Northern California. I am responsible for FIRST Tech Challenges all over. We've got over 5,000 teams now in 18 different countries. The growth has been phenomenal.

The big thing this year is the all new control system based on the Android operating system running on Android cell phones and tablets. That has allowed us to really make the program accessible to a whole range of students that otherwise might have been a little intimated by jumping into the robotics deep end. We're really happy with the way that the platform is coming together. We worked with Qualcomm as our corporate sponsor partner to be able to develop this, and it's been really well accepted this year.

Matties: The technology I'm seeing here on the show floor, the battle floor if you will, looks elaborate and expensive. How is all this being funded?

Johnson: I can speak specifically for the FIRST Tech Challenge, but the way that our non-profit is built is through a combination of registration fees from teams and corporate sponsorships. Frankly, most of our budget is covered by team registration fees. Those registrations are oftentimes augmented by sponsors themselves who would like to sponsor teams joining our programs, and who fully support the development of the next generation of science and technology leaders.

It's a win-win for everybody. It helps grow our program, it helps grow the people that are involved, but it really is creating this next generation of people that the sponsors will need to work in their companies. Qualcomm, NASA, BAE Systems, Rockwell Collins, PTC, really are looking at future consumers, but more importantly, future people that can push their technology forward.

Matties: Exactly. Are there any mentorships that come out of those sponsorships? Do they bring people in and work at that level?

Johnson: Definitely. Interacting with FIRST is really a wonderful thing for sponsors because they can get involved at a bunch of different levels. To start, they can simply apply their employees as volunteers.

Wilker: At events, like one-day kind of events. Come in, get trained up and you interact with the kids in a very controlled, one-day commitment kind of experience. We have a lot of corporate teams that like to come in and they'll give me a dozen volunteers for the day and they come in as a group.

Johnson: They can volunteer for a single day, as kind of a shallow dive. They can get their students, their kids involved, and it's a nice way for a corporation to not just give back to the community, but also directly get their employees and their students involved. They can also get involved at, of course, at the sponsorship level. They can help sponsor teams for simple things like registration all the way up to overall headquarter sponsorship. We've got a wonderful group of sponsors that span the range from technology companies, like the ones that you'd expect, Google and Apple, for example, to companies like Coca-Cola. We've got really a nice broad range of sponsors. It's not just technology companies.

Matties: What's the goal of FIRST?

Johnson: The goal of FIRST is to change the culture to celebrate accomplishments of scientists and technologists and show that it's a fun, meaningful and accessible way to create a wonderful future for you as a student and really, to create the kind of behavior that we need to fix the really big problems that are upon us. Not just from a technology standpoint, but also from a cooperation standpoint. That really is the goal of FIRST. It's no smaller than changing the world.

Matties: That's a lofty goal and I can see by the kids' faces here that you're achieving that to a degree right now already.

Wilker: They're our wonderful ambassadors. We have today, for example, on the FIRST Tech Challenge, an all-female rookie team who wanted to come. They literally just registered, built a robot and came out. They're working with the Girl Scouts and some corporate sponsors.

Matties: I saw that. It's great.

Wilker: We also have teams here that competed at the world championships. So some very high performing teams that have got their act together, and then we have everything else in between. In the FIRST LEGO League this afternoon, we have teams that basically decided that they love this program and they came back to share their robot and their project. Again, some more teams that just are wonderful ambassadors. Talking with the kids really is how the program spreads. Word of mouth is the best medicine. It's really contagious.

Matties: It's contagious for sure. These kids are excited. What about public schools? Are they embracing your programs? Are they incorporating this into their curriculum in any way?

Johnson: They are. It's interesting. I know across the board, an average of 65% of our coaches are teachers. In what has really been a pull from the coaches’ side to bring it into the classroom, we started FIRST as a STEM extension activity really designed to be done outside the classroom, but with the high percentage of coaches that are teachers and the whole movement towards more project-based learning, which is perfectly aligned with Makers, that pull has really been strong in the last few years.

We are working and do work with curriculum developers. We developed some curriculum ourselves. We also have a lot of early adopter teachers who have brought it into the classroom in a guerrilla style, bringing it in and using it to really augment the types of things that they're already teaching.

To read this entire article, which appeared in the August 2016 issue of SMT Magazine, click here.

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