For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology

FIRST is a program designed to inspire high school students to pursue careers in science and engineering by teaming them up with corporations, universities, or government agencies to build a 130-pound, almost 1-kilowatt robot to compete against other teams.  I have been involved with the MIT team since 1998, working with Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School and Chelsea High School.

During my first few years I found myself designing an increasingly large fraction of the robot, and devoting an incredible number of hours to building the robot with fellow MIT and high school students.  I specialized in drive trains, and succeeded in creating one of the fastest, strongest robots in the competition!  I  made drawings, designed parts, integrated various subsections in CAD, and spent a lot of time fixing or jury-rigging parts that broke after an extra-violent round.  Since our team takes the teaching component of FIRST very seriously, I did my best to bring my team along with me during the design process, showing them how and why I made each design and manufacturing decision.

When I realized I was designing half of the entire robot, it was clearly time to rework my role.  The MIT team has always had an interesting dynamic because it is much younger than other teams: MIT students are the engineering mentors (the same role filled by corporate engineers in other teams) and are often only a few years older than the high school students.  Thus the team is often overflowing with energy, enthusiasm, and novel ideas, but a little low on experience.   I decided that I needed to begin a concerted program to pass my knowledge on to the next generation of team leaders.

As more of my time must go into my graduate research, I can no longer work directly on the design details.  Instead, I have been running design reviews, giving workshops on manufacturing, teaching the high school students how to use computer aided design programs, and trying to teach what I know to those who are now doing the detailed design.  This causes me to think more deeply about the underlying principles I'm trying to convey, and has been beneficial both for me and the other members of the team.  
I've discovered that watching the team put my lessons to work to build a successful robot gives me a bigger charge than I would get than if I had built the robot myself!  I am always available for design help and troubleshooting, but have managed to refine my lessons over the years so that team members are increasingly autonomous.  

MPEG movie
of the 2001 robot lifting a goal onto its back during the national competition

  MPEG movie of the 2001 robot helping push another robot over the bridge, and then balancing the bridge, during the national competition

While the team usually places around middle of the pack (with the exception of the 1999 regional where we surprised everyone by taking second place), we are among the best at actually teaching our high schol students the fundamentals of robot design and construction, and giving them the chance for hands-on application of their new skills.  I've seen the quantity and the depth of knowledge transferred to the high school students grow every year.   Even though our team may not win the competition, we're making a serious impact on the educational and career choices of our team members.

More pictures, movies, CAD files, and design spreadsheets:

2002 robot