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FIRST: How the Inventor of the Segway Found a Way to Create Engineers Using Robots

You’re probably familiar with the Segway, but do you know who invented it?  Or how about clean water? No, I’m not asking if you know who invented clean water. I am asking if you know who invented the water filtration system which allows you to drink that clean water?

Let me ask some different questions.

Did you ever want to be a famous athlete? Or a rock-star? What about a well-known engineer?

I might have lost you with that last one. And that’s alright. Try and stay with me. Your next thought should be something like, “What well-known engineers are there?” Emphasis on the “well-known” because there are plenty of engineers, but what engineers are recognized as celebrities? If you can’t name any, that’s ok. I couldn’t at first either.

But then the question becomes why aren’t engineers celebrated the way rock-stars are? And that’s a good one. It’s exactly the question that inventor of the Segway, Dean Kamen asked himself.

Dean Kamen

Dean Kamen speaking at the Robotics Competition at Kettering University. Photo credit: Pardeep Tour

While it’s true that most kids know that Selena Gomez is a rock-star or that Michael Jordan is one of the most famous athletes of all time, not many kids (or even adults) know Dean Kamen has been called the Thomas Edison of our time.

Kamen owns over 440 patents to inventions he has created some of which include: as mentioned, the Segway, the wearable insulin pump, a portable dialysis machine, the Luke Skywalker prosthetic arm, and so much more. Without Kamen, and an immeasurable amount of other brilliant engineers, our lives (as we know it) would be flipped upside down.

So, why aren’t there famous scientists and engineers?

Kamen wanted to change this. The challenge arose when he couldn’t find enough engineers for his company. He knew that most students weren’t breaking down any doors to major in engineering. He also knew most kids dreamt of being the famous athlete or the rock-star because our society chooses to focus on and celebrate those things. So, he set out to construct a way to make engineering and science just as cool and exciting as athletes or celebrities. That’s when FIRST was born.

. . .

What is FIRST?

Maybe you’re like me and you don’t know much about engineering. Well, grab your snacks because there’s a lot I learned and can’t wait to share with you.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Marie Hopper, President of FIRST North Carolina, to find out more about this organization.


Marie Hopper announcing at the Asheville tournament. Photo credit: Danny Levenson

First, I should tell you that Lockheed Martin, a global aerospace, defense, security, and advanced technologies company, estimates it will retire 650,000 engineers in the next 5-10 years. Colleges don’t graduate that many engineers in any given year, introducing a real demand for engineers in the near future (I wasn’t aware of that.). Hopper commented on this need stating, “There is a critical gap [between engineers retiring and the need for new engineers] and our program is helping to fill that pipeline.”

Just from listening to Hopper for a few minutes, I knew this was a program worth learning about because of the way Hopper talked about FIRST. There was an excitement in her eyes, voice, and body language that you just can’t fake. So, let me fill you in on some of the basics.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by the aforementioned Dean Kamen. It is an international, non-profit organization that has programs from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. The original FIRST started in New Hampshire, but many states have their own “sectors” of FIRST (like FIRST North Carolina, which is based in Greensboro) that work closely with the “parent” organization.

If you came here just for a one-sentence summary, that’s not really my style. However, I did think of you when I had my interview. I asked Hopper to tell me, in one sentence, the purpose of FIRST. Her response was simple enough, “FIRST is about engaging and inspiring the next generation of engineers, innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders.” Now, if you’re interested in more than just that one-sentence summary, keep reading.

When Kamen established FIRST, he wanted to mix the excitement of sports, features of being a rock-star, and combine them with science and engineering. Insert robot competitions.

However, it didn’t just stop at robot competitions, since being founded, FIRST has become the 3rd largest scholarship provider in the country (Isn’t that insane? I had no idea!). Hopper was right, FIRST isn’t just an organization; Kamen has turned it into a movement.

Now that you have a general overview of the organization, let’s talk about their individual programs and what they have to offer.

The Programs (All About the Robots)

  • FIRST Lego League Jr.

This first-level program is for kids ages 6-10 (or grades K-4th). In groups of up to six kids, they begin learning about technology through building models out of Legos. These models must have, at least, one moving part. “For [FIRST], we believe education is hands-on. It has to be project-based [or game-based] learning…something that [will] engage students.” Since the programs are set up this way, it gets the kids excited about their projects (and their learning, even if they don’t realize it).

A “show-me” poster is required at the end of the program to illustrate what they’ve learned about teamwork and the topic of the year (Each year, the theme changes. For example, this year’s topic is “Creature Craze ®”. They will learn about the honey-bee’s habitat and animals that share that habitat.). They will present this poster at a “non-competitive expo” (think, science fair). In this presentation, students gain experience practicing their public speaking skills. (I don’t know about you, but I definitely could have benefitted from this when I was a kid.)

Hopper emphasized that teaching team work, respect, and a lot of those “soft skills” plays a major role in FIRST. Take the program they do with a school in Guilford County, in the 2nd grade, for example. Every year, after FIRST completes their course, teachers report the positive effects the program has had on the children. The most positive result? Teachers watch fights between kids on the playgrounds disappear. And it’s because they are learning about teamwork, respecting one another, and how to get along, even if you have a different opinion than someone. (Sounds to me like some adults could profit from these programs.)

  • FIRST Lego League

This next program is for kids ages 9-14 (or 4th-8th grade). These teams are of up to 10 kids and their season is between 8-12 weeks long. The robots they build are from Legos Mindstorm kits.

These robots are fully autonomous, as Hopper puts it. Game-play takes place on a 4×8 foot sheet of plywood which has a “pre-printed map rolled out onto it”. This mat adds another degree of difficulty. There are obstacles (made out of Legos) that the robot has to interact with during the tournament. So, the robots will have “missions” they must complete (all based around a yearly theme). Their robots will have to “trip mechanisms, deliver/pick up items, bring those items back to base,” etc. In addition, the teams’ robots are built before they come to a tournament.

The soft skills that participants of FIRST began learning in FIRST Lego League Jr. are implemented even more in this program. Each group goes through a “teamwork interview”. In this interview, students have the opportunity to explain what it means to work in a group. Hopper disclosed how much she loves the teamwork aspect of FIRST. There is a motto they train the kids to live and work by; it’s something they like to call “gracious professionalism”. They even give awards out for it. I’ll quote their website because they sum it quite nice. “It’s a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of other, and respects individuals and the community.” (Talk about something we should be teaching to everybody, huh?)

In this league, there is also a research element. Students receive a “current scientific question or problem” and are asked to invent a solution that they can allocate with the public. It is estimated anywhere between 50-100 teams, at this level, are filing for patents on the inventions they create. (Are you kidding me? When I was this age, the most I was focused on was who’s house I was having a sleepover at the next weekend.)

Hopper explained that FIRST isn’t so much about technology, but it’s more about a way of thinking (critical thinking to be exact). When given a problem, they want the kids’ minds to start churning on the most essential question: How can I solve this problem? They want to teach kids failure isn’t a bad thing; it just means you’re one step closer to finding a solution.

In joint with that, FIRST wants to show kids that technology is not just a toy or a game, but that it is a tool. A tool they can use to untangle and fix life’s most complex problems, like world hunger or global warming. They want kids to realize it isn’t just adults who can solve these big, scary problems, but that they, themselves, can create the solution.

For example, Hopper told me about a group of high schoolers, in Georgia, who designed a water filtration system. They were able to patent, package, and sell their product to underdeveloped countries. Meaning, now, clean water is more accessible to those who need it most. If you ask me, that’s a message kids need to hear: that they can change the world.

  • First Tech Challenge

This group includes children ages 12-18 (or 7th-12th grade) and they have teams composed of up to 15 kids. Instead of robots made out of Legos, imagine robots the size of a microwave with much more sophisticated and advanced technology (including motors, sensors, etc.).

These robots also require a higher programming language. FIRST believes if you give students a tangible challenge (like building a robot that uses coding and programming languages), they will become familiar with the technology. This is possible because they are learning in a “hands-on” environment. They will also become more “technology literate”, as Hopper put it, all around.

First Tech Challenge offers a new “challenge” that previous programs don’t. Teams will, now, be battling in a competition against other kids (as opposed to being judged against something like a perfect score).

They play on a field that is 12 feet by 12 feet with four robots on a field at a time (2 robots on a team). Each team attempts to win the game’s ultimate objective. The goal is to block the other team from their objectives in addition to helping their “partner” robot at the same time.

While there is no research component to this program, students are asked to keep an engineering notebook. This is because it is mandatory they “scrimmage and iterate” many times; they use the notebook to keep track of all their progress with building the robot, scrimmaging the robot, problems they might have with the robot, etc.

FIRST Tech Challenge’s season is one of the longest. It starts in September and the competitions are usually in February. When asked about the “seasons” (because it seemed like, to me, they were similar to sporting seasons) in FIRST, Hopper expressed, “We’re like a sporting event for the mind!”

  • FIRST Robotics Competition

A robot-in-action at a tournament! Photo credit: Danny Levenson

We’re at the main event, readers. Get ready for some action. OK, maybe there’s no literal action while reading this article, but the Robotics Competition is what draws most people’s attention.

FIRST Robotics Competition was the first program ever formed. It’s first competition was held in 1992. And now, FIRST North Carolina manages this program (along with FIRST Lego League Jr.).

These teams are larger, averaging around 35 students (In NC, the teams can be anywhere from 10-85 students). And these robots are no small endeavor. They can be up to 150 pounds and the kids design and program them with software that professional engineers use.

As a side note, maybe some of you are wondering (because I certainly did) about how many girls join FIRST. It’s no secret that the engineering (and even science) field is still a man’s world. However, I do have hopeful news for you. Hopper was elated to tell me last year, in NC, the high school program had 31% girl participants!

If that doesn’t seem high enough to you, you should realize the industry is between 12-18% girls. While colleges estimate to have somewhere in the mid 20% range of girls, so FIRST is crushing both of those statistics.

They strive to have that percentage go up each year. FIRST partners with organizations like Girl Scouts in order to encourage more girls to join. FIRST also sends out messages to teams that it is vital they represent their school’s or their community’s demographic (this is in regards to gender and race).

Ok, Ok, I could tell you a million side-notes about why FIRST is great, but let’s get back to the Robotics Competition.

Out of all the programs, the season for FIRST Robotics Competition is the most intense. They have a little over six weeks to build and test their robot. Then they won’t see their robot until it’s time for game-play. Each team battles in two competitions. (They will have the opportunity to go to the state and world competition, depending on their success.)

At the start of this season, teams have to set themselves up as a small business. They can have many departments in that “business” such as: a mechanical engineering department, an electrical engineering department, a computer programming department, and even departments like marketing and finance. FIRST wants students to create their own “brand” surrounding their robot (This teaches them work and real-life skills along the way.).

Participants of FIRST are not just learning “technology skills” or how to build and run a robot. They are learning skills that will go on to benefit them in their work and personal lives, as well. “The robot is the hook, but we are so much more than robots,” Hopper stated.

Do the Programs Work?

I would have been pretty confident that these programs worked just from the passion in Hopper’s eyes as she talked about the wonderful effect that FIRST has on kids.

I became certain this was an organization worth talking about when she told me the personal changes she sees in children that go through FIRST.

She painted a picture of students that walk in on the first day. Teenagers who don’t look you in the eye, who are lacking in self-confidence, and who are overall, disengaged.

Hopper then painted a different picture of the same kids, who, at tournaments come bounding up to her, shake her hand, and say, “I remember you!” Kids who can’t wait to tell anyone who will listen about the projects on which they have been working. Kids who are bursting full of freshly learned information and skills and who have passion in their eyes from what they are doing. Kids who are engaged, who are thrilled to be involved in engineering, and who are elated to be part of a team.

Ya’ll, I could stop there and it be enough to prove to you that this organization is altering the lives of kids in the most profound ways, but I do have more. (I told you to get your snacks, didn’t I?) Maybe you’re a scientific person yourself and you like proof. Cold, hard facts that have been taken from research and data. Well, you’re in luck because I have that too!

The following is from 10 years of evaluation data of FIRST participants. To see more of their research statistics and sources, please visit FIRST’s impact page here.



Statistics showing the impact of FIRST. Photo credit: FIRST’s website



Statistics showing the impact of FIRST (2). Photo credit: FIRST’s website



Statistics showing the impact of FIRST (3). Photo credit: FIRST’s website

And what’s not pictured here, but I feel is worth mentioning, is over 75% of Alumni are in a STEM field as a student or a professional.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: FIRST works and the benefits it can have on kids is unparalleled.

How Can You Get Involved?

Hopper stated to me towards the end of our interview, “It’s so much fun to know you get to touch the future.” Because that’s exactly what they’re doing. Changing the future by teaching kids they can change the world.

Hopefully after reading this article, you’re pretty fired up about this organization like I am. So, I’ll go ahead and answer the question I know you’re dying to ask. How can I get involved?

  • If you want to sign your kids up, you can go to FIRST’s website here or FIRST NC’s website here (if you live in NC) to find out which program will best suite your child. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to give them a call or shoot them an email!

If you don’t have a child, but still want to take part in FIRST, you can do a couple of things.

  • They always need mentors or coaches for teams. FIRST believes that right along with project-based learning, mentorship for the kids is crucial for their success. So, you can visit their website to pick an age group that you would like to help out. Then, you can email or call to find out more about becoming a mentor or a coach.
  • Don’t think you want quite that much responsibility? That’s okay! FIRST always needs volunteers for events. It takes a lot of time and effort to put on the tournaments and volunteers play a big role in making the magic come alive! If you want to be a part of that magic, you can email or call (Are you seeing a pattern here?) to find out what event(s) best fit your schedule!
  • If you don’t want to do either of these things, you can always go watch a tournament. Events are free, open to the public, and Hopper promises, “We are as exciting as the NCAA playoffs.” It’s a great place to go cheer on the kids or even take your own kids to help get them excited about science and engineering! Check out their website to find a tournament close to you.

Whether you’re looking to be a mentor, volunteer, donate, go to an event, or find something else you can help with, just (Can you guess what I’m about to suggest?) shoot FIRST an email or give them a phone call! Someone will be able to help you figure out the best way you can touch the future, too.

Alright, I could say more, but this does have to end somewhere.

So, is Dean Kamen creating engineers using robots? OK, maybe he isn’t creating engineers using robots, but he is creating a way for more kids to become engineers by using robots to pique their interests.

Like Hopper stated to me, “The robot is the hook…” The robot is the angle they use to get kids excited about science and engineering, about something that is real, about something that is crucial to solve the problems we have.

Maybe you remember this as a child because I certainly do. Getting told (a lot) that you can do anything you want to do, be anything you want to be and because of that you have the ability to change the world. But (and I still feel this way even as an adult sometimes), with so many options, it can be hard to know where to start.

And as a kid, you may not always feel that changing the world is possible when you’re just one person. Dean Kamen has made a way to bridge that gap between wanting to change the world and actually changing the world.

By being involved in FIRST, kids are finding real ways to change the world.

All of this is done by changing their perspective. By showing them it’s cool to be a scientist or an engineer.

And how does all that change happen? Robots.

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This entry was posted on October 3rd, 2016 and is filed under Education, General, Technology, Uncategorized. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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