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06/01/2010 - Education Robotics Expands in Region

US FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and its Washington State subsidiary FIRST-WA, are expanding rapidly in Spokane. In addition to the established FIRST LEGO League (FLL) and the previously profiled FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), Spokane will also have FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) teams. FIRST-WA recently appointed Senior Lecturer Stu Steiner from Eastern Washington University's Computer Science Department to be the east side regional partner for FTC. The FTC east side committee will focus on establishing and growing FTC in Eastern Washington, North Idaho, and Western Montana. They are calling it the "I-90 Region." A regional tournament in Spokane is planned for 2012.

The FIRST Tech Challenge program is aimed at Middle School and High School aged students from ages 14 to 18. Each team is made up of ten students and may have as many as three adult mentors. The robotic-based program uses real world technology and programming, and it is intended to be a bridge between the beginning FLL and the more intense FRC. The program uses DC motors and the new Tetrix system created by Pitsco to build a wide range of machines to play in the challenge.

The per-team cost of participating in FTC is about $1500. Of that amount $1000 buys one full robotics kit consisting of the reusable elements needed to compete. The game is announced in September, and each team has 10 to 12 weeks to create their robot for use in the game's competition. Maximum size of the robot is 18" by 18" by 18". Matches are played in a 12 foot by 12 foot field with alliances of robots competing against each other for scores. Each FTC team will learn to use sensors, programming, mechanical engineering principles and teamwork. Robots will be programmed to work both autonomously and by remote control. The game will include uneven surfaces, manipulation of objects, and navigation. Additional costs include registration with FIRST at around $300, and another $200 for miscellaneous items. Travel to competitions is extra.

Steiner got involved with FTC when he helped setup audio/visual equipment for the FIRST LEGO League tournament held at EWU. Because he had to "hang around to be sure nothing went wrong," he watched the action and immediately "fell in love." This is a typical reaction from both adults and students.

FIRST Robotics was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, President of DEKA Research & Development Corporation based in Manchester, NH. Kamen may be best known as the inventor of the Segway® Human Transporter. The mission of FIRST is "to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, 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."

Along with inspiring young people to life-long love of engineering, science, and technology, FIRST fosters "Gracious Professionalism." According to Kamen, "with Gracious Professionalism, fierce competition and mutual gain are not separate notions. Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy, but treat one another with respect and kindness in the process. They avoid treating anyone like losers. No chest thumping tough talk, but no sticky-sweet platitudes either. Knowledge, competition, and empathy are comfortably blended."

The FIRST program works. Students who start at the earliest level have been shown to remain interested through their entire academic lives, and a large percentage graduate from college. Anyone, young student to living fossils, typically and instantly falls in love with the whole program while watching the competition at any level. The program has 5 levels. They are FRC for grades 9 '12, ages 14 to 18; FTC for Grades 9 '12, ages 14 -18; FLL for grades 4-8, ages 9-14; and Junior FLL for Grades K-3, ages 6-9. Because many adults lament that such a program was unavailable when they were in school, FIRST developed "First Place" for ages 6 to adult.

For more information about US FIRST, visit www.usfirst.org.
For more information about FIRST-WA, visit www.firstwa.org.
For more information about FTC, e-mail Stu Steiner at ssteiner@ewu.edu.

Billie Moreland
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