FIRST Championship: What Schools and Tech Should Look Like
Last week I headed to Houston with my daughter to experience the FIRST championship. FIRST, which stands for: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, was founded as a non-profit in 1989, well before the current STEM push, by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen to engage kids’ interest and participation in science and technology with the goal to inspire kids to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills. FIRST is a massive organization that reaches 615,000 kids across more than 100 countries and functions thanks to over 250,000 mentors, coaches, judges, and volunteers each year.
So Much of What I Saw Made for Great Work Ethics
It was my first FIRST experience, and while I was aware of the program through the FIRST Lego Robotics team at my daughter’s old school, I was unprepared for what I experienced over my two days in Houston. The excitement from the kids and every single volunteer was palpable and uplifting. What blew me away though, was the sheer talent I encountered. Every kid I met spoke passionately and articulately about their project, their team and how the competition was going. They were open to sharing the challenges they faced with some of their robots’ designs, and most importantly they were excited to tell me how they solved them. Many of the kids shared a similar story, one of getting to FIRST almost by accident, not feeling confident about technology, let alone robotics, and finding their role working through their projects. Many found their voice and their passion and all of them were grateful to the program.
As I walked through the convention center, I was surprised by how many girls I saw. I came across quite a few all-girls teams. I did learn that FIRST has been focusing on vulnerable youths such as kids emancipating from foster care or homeless kids, underrepresented populations such as Hispanics & Latinos, African Americans, American Indians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders but also girls and young women and economically disadvantaged students. What was evident from talking to some of these girls was that they had been empowered to be who they want to be within their team, from designer to marketing to head engineering and some changed role as they found out about their own strengths. All positions were valued and discussed as a vital component of the team’s success. Listening to a male team member tell me how amazing their female lead engineer was while she was adjusting some aspects of their robots in between competitions gave me such joy.
As I was taking it all in, I could not help but think about how different the tech world is. Of course, I realize that I did not get to see the arguments, the problems and the “bad” stuff that I am sure these teams face, give me some credit, I have an 11-year-old I know how kids work. But even on a bad day on a FIRST team, I bet they do better than the average tech company. The program builds on collaboration, on teamwork. You cannot be successful if you do not learn how to work with other people and with that you learn how to respect those people and their ideas, you learn to teach others and be taught by others. The soft skills I saw plentifully displayed at the tournament are what any employer not just today but also in the future will always value: leadership, problem-solving, time management, effective presentation, collaboration, thought leadership, ingenuity, empowerment of others and self-empowerment, advocacy, drive.
Sponsoring Beyond Cutting a Check
FIRST has many companies that are either in tech or closely linked to tech on their sponsors' list. Among their Strategic Partners, you find Qualcomm, Boeing, Apple, Google, and LegoEducation and among the FIRST Equity, Diversity and Inclusion sponsors you have Apple, Qualcomm, Cisco, GitHub, and Verizon to name a few.
The level of engagement differs from company to company, and I did not have the opportunity to speak to all of them, but I listened to panels where representatives of some of shared their experience and I spent some time with the Qualcomm for Good people who were at the event and helped me navigate it.
I have been covering Qualcomm for a long time as part of my mobile coverage, but I had no idea they had been a sponsor of FIRST since 2006 and their involvement goes way beyond cutting checks for millions of dollars. In the FIRST Tech Challenge, for instance, the teams use two smartphones running on Snapdragon to control their robots. More importantly, though is the employee engagement Qualcomm fosters for the program. In 2018 alone, hundreds of employees across countries were involved with FIRST providing over 10,000 hours of volunteer time. I guess while I was surprised to hear that, it made a lot of sense for a company like Qualcomm to foster talent for the future of innovation.
But here is where I find what Qualcomm is doing even more interesting, and I heard other companies involved with FIRST have similar practices: they look for FIRST alumni as future employees. And they do so because these companies know the value FIRST brings to the table with both the technical and soft skills it helps to develop. In 2017, Qualcomm hired more than 30 FIRST alumni as summer interns. They also drive traffic to job opportunities through FIRST’s website and on-site engagement.
Scaling the FIRST Approach
There is a lot of attention on STEM and coding in particular, but I firmly believe that not all programs are created equal. I have been to enough events in Silicon Valley to appreciate that while the course or camp is focused on coding the way kids are thought is the classic teacher to student, follow the steps method where little room is given to the kids to learn any of the soft skills I just mentioned. And you do not want to get started on how some schools pay lip service to STEM because they are expected to offer something, but it is clear they have yet to understand that it is not just what you teach but how you teach that matters and that STEM is not just another subject to add to the list.
Dean Kamen said there is no education problem and he is right when I think about how many educators are involved with FIRST. But I do believe there is a problem in how schools and government continue to focus on a cookie-cutter approach to education. A system that focuses on averaging our kids' abilities out and test them on what they can recall and regurgitate rather than how they can think for themselves building on the knowledge they have acquired linked together across disciplines and then implemented effectively in their life.
The Brandeis University 2006 Evaluation of FIRST Robotics Competition Alumni report shows that FIRST alumni are twice as likely to major in Science or Engineering with 41% major in Engineering and 33% of Women major in Engineering. Can you imagine what the impact could be if the FIRST principles were applied through schools at every level and then to a work environment?
Of course, this alone is not going to solve all the issues we have in seeing higher numbers of women and other underrepresented groups not just working in tech but reaching leadership positions in tech organizations. What we need is to have the same level of support, mentoring, advocacy, that I saw throughout FIRST enter colleges and the workplace. Seeing my kid light up as she was talking to other girls about technology or asking questions to a Disney Imagineering female engineer who told her she never knew tech could be so cool made me realize that we do not only have a pipeline problem we have a support problem. All these kids need to be encouraged and supported not just by words from parents and educators, but from actions that tech companies take today in making sure that no matter of the kids' background, gender, religion or ethnicity they see people who look like them leading tech organizations.