The mission of FIRST is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators, by engaging them in exciting Mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.
This week, the team is privileged to attend our initial FIRST LEGO League competition. We get an opportunity to speak with some of the youngest members of the FIRST community, and see how participating in the program early in life can affect students. We also speak with an event organizer for this event, as well as the Regional Director for Orlando.
The only thing better than attending a FIRST event that is being managed by JT Yoerger is getting the chance to sit down and talk with him for a few minutes. His energy and love of all things FIRST are not only contagious, but his hard work and dedication make the events that he hosts truly wonderful for the kids in the league.
As Senior Manager of Events, Marketing & Communications for FIRST LEGO League programs in Central Florida, JT manages about 50 events per year. These events include outreach, fund raising, prequalifying and qualifying events, as well as state and national championships and summer conferences. He stays quite busy and it certainly pays off.
At FIRST Looks, we've had the opportunity to see JT in action a number of times over the last few years and we can attest to his attention to detail and level of organization. Most importantly, he makes it seem almost effortless while still ensuring that every cog in the wheel is well maintained. From managing the full time employees to the hundreds of volunteers, offering travel, catering and venue support and so much more. He fosters an environment in which all involved are able to work well together to support the event and most importantly, the kids.
As a FIRST LEGO League alumni himself, he knows the philosophy and games very well. He also knows how important it is to teach these kids FIRST's Core Values and facilitate an atmosphere of ingenuity and growth for them, along with the volunteers who generously give it all that they've got. For JT, it's really all about innovation and changing the world.
To find out more about FIRST LEGO League in Central Florida, you can visit their website at centralfloridarobotics.org. You can also check out the FIRST website here for general information and to find programs in all other areas.
We had a blast getting to know Hope from FIRST LEGO League Team 8152, the RoboGeeks. Hope is 11 (going on 12) and is in her third year on the team. With her seniority and experience, she now mainly acts in a supportive role and fills in wherever she is needed at any given time. She tends to do a lot of the programming and does a lot of the missions, which she loves. And she occasionally jumps into the building and modifying process when needed.
Her favorite part of being part of FIRST LEGO League, besides programming the robots, is having the opportunity to figure out solutions to the problems they come across during the process. She loves that they work on a problem that arises and then learn how to fix it themselves. She finds learning to be the best part.
She also loves the anxiety and excitement of coming to competitions. The team currently has 8 members, three of which are girls. You can tell how well their team works together and that they have a lot of fun. They have a lot of cheers and love to keep the fun going.
Hope looks forward to continuing with FIRST as she moves from elementary to middle school. She can't wait to get into programming even more by learning Java and HTML. And although she isn't exactly sure what she wants to do when she grows up, she does want to keep pursuing her love of coding.
For more information about FIRST, check out their website.
He's knowledgeable. He's energetic. He's full of STEM spunk. That's right, our favorite FIRST Volunteer Coordinator and Emcee is back... time to create a frequent guest punch card for the one and only, Barry Bonzack.
When you are around Barry, especially at a FIRST Competition, you can't help but feel inspired. He has a way of turning an already fun event, into a complete blast. The organizers love him, his fellow volunteers love him and most importantly, the kids love him! Whether it's calling a match, sparking a dance party in between rounds or fitting in time to be interviewed, Barry brings his unique enthusiasm to every task.
One thing about Barry that really inspires us is that once you get to know him, you find out that he is not an engineer. As a kid on a FIRST team, he discovered that you don't have to be the one who designs and builds the bots to be a very important part of the team. He learned that his planning and business skills were every bit a part of making the team a success. He started volunteering with FIRST while at the University of Central Florida as a mentor for a team and was able to get an internship with Lockheed Martin, who sponsored the team.
Barry now uses his business background in his career with Lockheed Martin at NASA on the Orion Program. And he carries his passion for Business and STEM forward as he Inspires and Recognizes Science & Technology every single day. Thank you, Barry, for being a FIRST advocate and volunteer! And as always, thank you for taking some time to join us on the show!
You can keep up with Barry and some of the really cool things he does at the Kennedy Space Center by following him on Twitter.
When we're at a regional competition, it doesn't matter if we're talking to a seasoned member of a FIRST team or to a rookie, we can definitely feel their excitement and enthusiasm. This was the case when we sat down with Brice from FIRST LEGO League 36321 Team W.I.L.D.
And even when someone is new to the team, they quickly become an integral part of their planing an success. Brice is the main spokesperson for the team and also works a lot on the robot table and the project. He enjoys doing the research and finds it interesting how learning one thing leads to a lot more to explore. It's a lot of work but it's very fun.
Although he originally found the competitions to be a bit intimidating, he quickly got use to it and realized how much fun they are. He really likes talking to the kids on the other teams about the theme and their different robots. He enjoys learning about their process and interacting with so many others who have common goals.
Brice is currently in the 8th grade and he looks forward to continuing with FIRST and joining either FIRST Tech Challenge or FIRST Robotics Competition in the future.
Elana is a 5th grade student who is currently on FIRST LEGO League Team 32160, The Water Fountains. She is enjoying her first year very much and loves the crazy things that her team does to make it a fun experience. Their cool hats really say it all.
Programming is Elana's favorite thing to do on the team. She has learned, though using NXT, that some of the programs are easy and some are more difficult to figure out. She also enjoys working on the missions. Right now they are working on a flower project where they are using water to get a flower to stand upright in a pot.
Being new to FIRST, she found the qualifying tournaments and judging to be scary in the beginning, but even though she started out nervous, she quickly found out how much fun they are and made it through with ease. She loves the science aspect of FIRST and how they problem solve throughout the process. She plans to continue in the field of science and hopes to get into CSI when she grow up.
Anybody who has ever been involved in a team sport knows that the coaches can either make or break the experience. One of the best things about FIRST is the dedication and enthusiasm of the team coaches. Whether they join because of their own love of robotics or to be supportive of their child's aspirations, so many of the coaches are making an impact on these kids in the most wonderful way.
Steve, coach of FIRST LEGO League 9811 (Da Flyin Ewoks), is a perfect example. As a 5th grade teacher in Ormond Beach, FL, Steve was approached by a neighbor who was involved with an FIRST Robotics Competition team that wanted to create more of a network in the area where kids could progress up into the higher levels of FIRST. It wasn't long before Steve was on board and became the coach of this FIRST LEGO League team. And although they have gone through some changes is format, team names and grades, they continue to expand and work their way to the Regional Competition every year.
For the first three years, the team was comprised of only rookie members each year. Now in their 4th year, they retained two members from last year. This has been a good change as the veterans have been able to mentor the rookies and offer their experience to the team.
Steve has found that he is able to incorporate all that he teaches in the 5th grade into coaching for FIRST LEGO League in a way that is exciting for the kids. The kids love it so much, they make sure to fit in the practices around all of their other extracurricular activities. And Steve loves to take kids who are completely new to FIRST and watch them move up to the larger robots after just one year. He also has a lot of fun having his daughter on the team.
Austin is a junior in high school and is currently on FIRST Tech Challenge Team 11619, Rust in Pieces. Although his team hasn't formally competed in a tournament yet, they have built a robot and completed all of the challenges on their practice field. Their goal for 2018/2019 is to compete and make their way to Nationals.
This year is Austin's first year volunteering with FIRST LEGO League here at the 2018 Regional Competition. And although he originally signed up to help fulfill his requirement for volunteer hours, he quickly realized how important his role has been. Along side this teacher, who is also the robotics coach from his high school, Austin has been helping to set up the fields and pit area. He signed up for two days of volunteering but when he saw that there was still a lot of help needed and how dedicated his coach was to this effort, Austin cancelled his plans and came back to help for a 3rd day.
FIRST has inspired Austin to incorporate his passion for art with all that he is learning in technology and robotics. He feels that the world is full of problems that end up getting glorified instead of solved. From his point of view, he acknowledges that technology is the future but he also can see that art and history is what has gotten us here. This is something that we at PLuGHiTz also feel quite strongly about. We feel that STEM is nothing without Art and therefore should remain STEAM. It is so refreshing to come across a teenager who is learning this concept organically on his own, as he goes through his classes and hobbies. Austin in another example of how we should never underestimate these kids.
The coaches, mentors, volunteers and staff that are involved in FIRST all have a common goal in mind of helping the kids be inspired and learn. Individually we contribute in our own way to help the kids build their robots for competition. Collectively we ensure that the competitions are engaging, motivational and organized. But in the end, we end up learning and being inspired by the kids themselves.
Today we had the most wonderful conversation with Megan from FIRST LEGO League 5586, Hydro Kittens Vol. 2. Megan is a rookie on the team, but if she hadn't told us that, we definitely would not have guessed. She has the enthusiasm of a seasoned veteran.
Megan joined FIRST LEGO League at the suggestion of her older brother who had been a member for 3 years. She admits that she is not the engineering type and just thought she'd try it out. It turns out that she loves it and is very involved with the team. Her favorite things to do on the team is program the robot. She also really enjoys working on the project, skits and props.
Megan and her team have the core values down pat and she explained how they practice them in their everyday lives. We learned a lot from Megan and can't wait to see her again at future FIRST events.
Hannah is a senior in high school and is the youth mentor of FIRST LEGO League 36321 Team W.I.L.D. She is also a FIRST Alumni, having competed on Team Fire from the 6th to the 8th grades. Hannah finds that although a lot stays the same in the realm of FIRST LEGO League (i.e. style of competition and student involvement), it is a very different experience to be a team mentor than member.
She notes that there is a different kind of stress involved in each scenario. As a team member, she felt the anxiety and excitement of the competition directly. Now as team mentor, she concentrates on being there to help the whole team succeed and making sure that everybody is properly equipped. So it's all new and different but still a lot of fun. She basically went from being the one who was encouraged to being the one who does the encouraging.
Hannah's favorite part about being the team's youth mentor is bringing everything that she has learned in the past to this team. She volunteers because FIRST meant so much to her when she was in middle school. Back then, she didn't know what she wanted to do for even an extracurricular activity, much less when she grew up. And it was being involved in FIRST that led her to decide that she wants to specifically direct her education towards a career in engineering. She now attends the Central Florida Aerospace Academy and looks forward continuing on in the engineering field.
It's clear that it is also very important to Hannah to pay it forward. Not only is it fun and rewarding to volunteer and be a mentor, but she loves helping the kids learn, work on their projects and to also show them how many wonderful opportunities they have. She also gets a kick out of seeing the looks on their faces when they accomplish difficult tasks and the concepts finally click. Being there to guide them through their own work and problem solving is the best part.
In FIRST teams, sometimes the coach of a team can be an adult, and sometimes it can be a student. In the case of FIRST LEGO League 10240, Aqualifters, their coaching is done by student Chloe. This, of course, does not mean that the faculty of the school, where the team is based, is uninvolved, but they have given some of the responsibility to Chloe. For example, she ensures that her fellow teammates are following the team checklist and sometimes leads team discussions.
As an 8th grader, it means that this will be her last year on the team. When she moves on to high school next year, she plans on joining one of their FIRST Tech Challenge two teams: Roarbots and Den in Black. For any student that has moved from FIRST LEGO League into FIRST Tech Challenge, there is always a bit of nervousness, but Chloe is looking forward to the new challenge. She hopes to learn both the physical and programming aspects of building a FIRST Tech Challenge robot.
After high school, she hopes to get into an engineering field, driven by her participation in FIRST. In addition to finding a path for herself after school, she also enjoys the social aspect of FIRST. While she is excited about her next steps in the program, she will miss the students she has been on her current team with for the past 2 years.
At some point every year, we get the pleasure of speaking with the Orlando Regional Director, to get insight into the event, which is one of the longest continuously-running FIRST Robotics Competition competitions. This year, the event celebrates its 20th anniversary and welcomes a new Director to oversee the proceedings: Wendy Austin.
Wendy has been involved in FIRST for many years, having been directly involved with an FIRST Robotics Competition team, and then volunteering at events, including the Orlando Regional, for several years. This year, she has the honor of being the Regional Director, though she does admit that there is some nervousness involved with taking over for the anniversary. Luckily, there is a committee that works together to plan the event. In fact, a lot of the details were in-place before Wendy even took the job.
Wendy is very excited about a number of the exciting plans for the regional. For example, there is a social gathering, which will allow the students from the various teams to interact with one another without the hustle and bustle of either the field or pits behind them. There is also a first-of-its-kind coin that will be available, which is a tradition taken from the upper ranks of the military. The Regional also plans on hosting several special guests from FIRST HQ, including Michelle Long, who oversees Alumni Programs for the organization.
While it might be a scary time to take the reigns, it seems Wendy has it in-hand.
If you have never participated in a FIRST event, whether it be a student, mentor, volunteer or spectator, it might be hard to believe that one of the hardest jobs is emcee. Even for an event the size of this regional, it requires two emcees to make it work. We spoke with Dr. Smash, one of the two voicing the event.
Dr. Smash, in addition to her duties at this event, is also the mascot of her FIRST Robotics Competition team, 2152 SMASH. She is making her appearance at the event from Daytona Beach, Florida, which is about 2 hours from the competition. This is actually not an unusual scenario, as volunteers that are very dedicated to the program can drive across Florida every weekend for competitions of all of the programs. Dr. Smash has been volunteering with FIRST for the last 9 years, and cannot count how many competitions she has volunteered at.
She continued to volunteer because she simply loves to see the students happy, and to give the parents an opportunity to have a safe place for the kids to play and learn. She also enjoys being in the emcee seat, hearing from the students all day long. One of her favorite moments ties both of these together, seeing the students excited to see her when she attends an event.
There are a lot of aspects to a FIRST team that go beyond just building the robot. When it comes to FIRST LEGO League, one of those "More than Robots" aspects is called Core Values. Described by Landon from FIRST LEGO League 19359, RoboRaptors, Core Values is about both having fun at the competition, but also maintaining a good spirit while competing against and cooperating with other teams. Landon is the student in charge of Core Values for his team, as well as programming the robot.
Landon is in his third year with his team, and is excited about the enhancements the team has made for the current season. Their goal was to be able to perform more than one mission at the same time, without having to have the robot return to base to get hardware swapped out. To accomplish this, the team added more sensors to the robot, as well as focusing on new building techniques to allow the robot to carry more attachments.
Landon, like many FIRST participants, enjoys the social aspects of his team. It's a great place for kids to meet other kids who share a common interest and reach for a goal together. Personally, his favorite part of reaching for the robot goal is in building. He likes building the robot, building attachments - just seeing it come together.
After this season, he is considering moving up to his school's FIRST Tech Challenge team, which he is excited about. He believes the additional challenge will help him in his goal of becoming a biomedical engineer in the future.
On any FIRST team, thee are a lot of roles. Every team needs someone to build, someone to program, someone to design a logo, someone to keep the team organized, someone to drive, someone to help with outreach, and that is just a small selection of the tasks for these teams. When you're on an FIRST LEGO League team, you have to be responsible for more than one role, because with only about 10 students, there is not a single person for each responsibility.
In the case of FIRST LEGO League 29141, Robo-Dragons, they like to show their fellow team members and competitors what responsibilities they had on the team. This is accomplished with badge ribbons for each role a member held. For Hannah, she held 5 roles, ranging from artist to master builder. For Zaid, he held 6 roles, not including being the mascot at the event.
As with most FIRST teams, Hannah says that the team works really well together, and the team are all good friends. That is a positive statement for a member who has only just joined the team this year. Her interest in robotics comes from a different place from many of the students in the program: she wants to be an archaeologist, and is interested in automating some of the tools used.
Zaid says that everyone want to be the mascot for the team, but he gets the honor of being mascot for the competition. In good mascot style, he was able to stay in good spirits and keep the team positive, even when the performance on the field was not perfect. He also says that his favorite part of FIRST is working with and learning from the members of his team.