Viewpoint -- Robots Can Help America Put FIRST Things First For Students

April 11, 2007
To succeed U.S. manufacturers must compete on innovation -- new products, superior designs and new manufacturing techniques -- and it needs to be fueled with a steady crop of young U.S. engineers.

Robots used to be the stuff of science fiction. Today, they're very real -- part of nearly every kind of manufacturing.

What's even more real is how important it is that our nation's kids have a chance to get the kind of education that could make them the next generation of robotic engineers -- and maintain America's global competitiveness. A tremendously entertaining and educational sport is helping to make that possible.

Fifteen years ago, inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, developer of countless medical devices and of course the Segway human transporter, developed a robot-building competition called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). Since then, this self-described "varsity sport of the mind" has drawn in thousands of the high-school students, stimulating their interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

FIRST is an especially crucial program at a time when global competition is driving businesses to use innovation as their distinguishing factor to propel them ahead of global companies offering lower costs and wider accessibility. The 2007 FIRST Championship is going on April 12 through April 14 in Atlanta.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates recently told a U.S. Senate committee, in fact, "When I reflect on the state of American competitiveness today, my immediate feeling is not only one of pride, but also of deep anxiety." He asserted that, "While most students enter high school wanting to succeed, too many end up bored, unchallenged and disengaged from the high school curriculum." Gates recommended doubling the number of science, technology and math graduates by 2015 and recruiting 10,000 new science and math teachers every year.

Manufacturers, technology companies and other concerned businesses view FIRST as a means of strengthening tomorrow's engineering talent pool by re-engaging students in math, science and technology. This year companies have provided financial support and other resources for high-school teams in 37 regional competitions, with the winners facing off in April at the championships in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. Their assignment, which changes every year, was to win a game called "Rack 'N' Roll." They were challenged to build robots from standard kits to hang inflated colored tubes on pegs configured in rows and columns on a 10-foot-high rack structure, earning extra points if their robots could lift another robot more than four inches off the floor.

The FIRST competition encourages collaboration and teamwork by simulating real world challenges and teaching more than 1,300 student teams from seven countries skills that are transferable to potential future careers. These are the kids who, in a few short years, will be the mathematicians, scientists and engineers can help ensure that we continue to have a vibrant American economy and not a fading one.

Educational and engineering organizations such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers have warned that the number of college students majoring in engineering has fallen far behind the need. With the Department of Workforce Development recently projecting an 18.6% increase in the number of available engineering jobs in the U.S. between 2004 and 2014, there is a clear gap in available engineers on the horizon. If we don't graduate engineers here, the jobs will go elsewhere, and those loses will take a real economic toll on America.

The loss of engineering talent in the U.S. will have an impact far greater than simply the loss of those engineering jobs. Innovation is one of the last competitive advantages U.S. manufacturers enjoy against hungry global competitors.

U.S. manufacturers simply can't compete with overseas producers on price; to succeed, they must compete on innovation -- new products, superior designs and new manufacturing techniques. If we don't fuel that innovation with a steady crop of young U.S. engineers, it will spell a steep decline of manufacturing in this nation and the economic benefits it brings.

That's why Autodesk and other businesses are doing everything possible to encourage programs like FIRST, including donating professional design and engineering software used by student teams to build the robots. The competition gives students the power to dream tomorrow's big ideas today by placing technology used by professionals in their hands. For example, the student team from Atlanta International School (AIS) in Buckhead used 3ds Max 3D modeling and rendering software to create a 30-second animation for the Autodesk Visualization award, given to the FIRST team with the best submission based on this year's theme of "Think Green." Matthew Keeter, a senior at AIS who helped design the animation, is going on to study engineering at the university level next year. Matthew and students like him are already becoming proficient with tools veteran engineers use on a daily basis.

The value of working hands-on with these systems to create a solution -- robotic or otherwise -- is the "Aha!" moment that strikes these students and transforms them from interested pupils to true innovators. National Association of Manufacturers President and former Michigan Governor John Engler notes, "If the U.S. to maintain its world leadership in manufacturing, we must develop a new generation of innovative engineers who will keep us on the cutting edge of emerging technologies and scientific breakthroughs. This wonderful program will help attract and encourage our brightest young minds to the technology challenge."

As the impact of FIRST expands, perhaps the next high school kid who dials up the volume on her iPod will realize the role of mechanical engineering in its stylish design. Or a college freshman who begs his parents for a Mini Cooper may begin to appreciate the engineering that gives the car its fun personality.

We owe it to our kids and to our future to convey the absolute necessity of engineering and just how cool engineering can be -- before they start college. Only then will we be able to sustain the innovation that has always made America great.

Robert "Buzz" Kross is vice president of Manufacturing Solutions at San Rafael, California-based Autodesk ( and is responsible for developing innovative technology solutions that meet the specific needs of mechanical engineers, designers and drafters.

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