paper: FIRST Robotics in Virginia Schools

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FIRST Robotics in Virginia Schools
by: Nate Laverdure

A plan to implement all three incarnations of FIRST throughout all Virginia public schools. An essay and accompanying 5-minute presentation for a college English class, turned in May 1, 2008.

The following is a plan to implement the three major incarnations of FIRST (FRC, FTC, and FLL) throughout all Virginia public schools, totaling more than 1800 institutions. All told, the program would cost about $2.13 Million USD yearly and would become profitable (from a state tax perspective) in less than 10 years.

This paper and its accompanying 5-minute presentation were turned in as part of an assignment for a college English class at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. The presentation was given on April 15, 2008, and the essay was turned in today (May 1, 2008). The assignment was open-ended: we had to propose that some authoritative body implement a solution to a problem. My hypothetical audience for both my paper and my presentation was the Division of Technology and Career Education at the Virginia Department of Education.

All of my original work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike license, which means that as long as you provide the correct attribution and are not using the information for a commercial purpose, you may re-use everything. Copyrights of all images are held by their respective owners as noted.

I offer this paper and presentation here both as stimuli to the FIRST community and as a form of open communication with Virginia education officials.

The following is a transcript of the presentation. Click on the thumbnails to see larger versions of the slides.

Slide 1
Hello, my name is Nate Laverdure. I am an engineering student at Old Dominion University, and I am a long-time member of the FIRST Robotics program. My audience today is the Division of Technology and Career Education at the VA Department of Education.

I propose to you that by instituting FIRST Robotics programs in all VA schools, we will make a lasting impact on the academic and career trajectories of the students of our state.

Slide 2
FIRST Robotics sounds like a science fair, but that’s not even close. FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It’s currently broken up into three parts:

In the FIRST Lego League, teams of about a dozen elementary school students build programmable robots out of LEGO bricks. The machines are designed to complete a number of tasks to gain points. Competitions are mainly held at the regional level.

In the FIRST Tech Challenge, older students build their robots out of Vex kits, which resemble erector sets. Their robots are remote-controlled and they compete against other robots to achieve points in a game that changes every year.

In the FIRST Robotics Competition, high schoolers must design, build, program, and test a large robot in a period of six weeks. They compete against other teams at regional competitions, including one in the Seigel Center at VCU, which hosted 65 teams this year, including several from out of state and one from Hawaii.

Slide 3
FIRST may look like any other robot game you see on TV, but it’s not. FIRST’s catch phrase is “gracious professionalism,” which means that even in the heat of competition, you’ll always see the best kind of sportsmanship.

And FIRST isn’t about the robots. The robots are just the teaching tool. What is FIRST teaching? Students involved in FIRST are learning…

Slide 4

Slide 5
…problem solving…

Slide 6
…and communication, among with many other great lessons that will stick with them through their whole lives. The best lesson I learned as a student in FIRST wasn’t to always keep an Allen wrench in my pocket–it was how to be a better leader of my peers.

Slide 7
FIRST is growing very quickly. The first FIRST competitions were held in 1992 in a high school gym in Manchester, NH.

Today, there are almost 40,000 students in the program, and they compete in over 40 regional competitions in four countries.

The program continues to expand: in 2002, the championship competition outgrew Epcot, and the next year, it was too big for BOTH Houston’s Reliant Stadium AND the Astrodome. It’s now held in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, and that’s getting a little small, too.

Slide 8
FIRST is making a huge impact on the lives of its students. An independent study in 2005 by Brandeis University found that FIRST students are more than twice as likely to pursue a career in science and technology, and they were more than 3 times as likely to study engineering.

Slide 9
Science and technology careers have become increasingly important in the US with the increase in engineering graduates in China and several other countries. These numbers are disputed by many parties, but the fact is that Chinese universities graduate over two times as many engineers as the U.S.

Engineers are vitally important to our country’s economy, as they promote sustainability and independence. It’s also important that the US remains competitive in the worldwide engineering market.

Some of the largest engineering projects going on in the world today are happening in other countries.

Slide 10
The Three Gorges Dam will be the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. It’s in China.

Slide 11
The Millau Viaduct is currently the highest bridge in the world. It’s in France.

Slide 12
Venetian engineers are in the planning stages of a project to protect Venice from overwhelming floods.

Slide 13
The problem is that engineers in the United States may be undervalued. I know that I don’t want to have to learn Mandarin Chinese in order to get an engineering job once I graduate. But we can’t easily change our economy to regain our competitive edge in the worldwide engineering market. Instead, we’re going to have to change our culture.

Slide 14
How should we change our culture to better focus on engineering as a career choice for our VA students? Well, we all have heroes. Adam Vinatieri, Barack Obama, Superman, etc… Why can’t we have science and technology heroes, too?

Slide 15
I’ll tell you who my science and technology hero is. His name is Dave Lavery, and in his job at NASA, he led the team that put two robotic rovers on Mars in 2003. He’s also one of the founding members of the FIRST leadership team.

Slide 16
FIRST wants to “create a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes.” I think we should let them help us transform the culture in our schools…

Slide 17
…and inspire us to lead our students into careers in science and technology. Thank you.

EDIT: The PowerPoint presentation is availible for download from

FIRST_in_VA.pdf (141 KB)
FIRST_in_VA.doc (100 KB)