If you’ve ever been to a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition (FRC) – with its whiz-bang contraptions battling it out like modern day gladiators on an arena floor – it might appear to be all about building hi-tech toys.
But the efforts of a Toyota-sponsored team in San Antonio suggest it’s really about building the hi-tech community of the future.
Inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, best known for creating the Segway two-wheeled personal transporter, founded the FRC in 1989. His concept was to combine the excitement of sports like football and basketball with the pursuit of science and technology. It’s proven to be a potent combination. These days, an estimated 75,000 students make up 3,000 teams from 24 countries. They enter their robots in more than 100 competitions leading up to international finals where millions of dollars of scholarships are at stake.
MAKBots is one of those teams. They’ve been competing in FRC events since 2012 – initially in the organization’s Lego League as middle schoolers and now with fully fledged robots as high school students. Along the way, they’ve advanced from local, state and regional qualifiers to compete in the world finals.
Paying it Forward
MAKBots’ success, however, hasn’t been entirely of their own making. They’re one of about 75 teams in San Antonio sponsored by Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Texas (TMMTX) through grants totaling over $200,000 to date. And they’re mentored by one of the plant’s team members, Paint Department Maintenance Assistant Manager Joe Li. So while they’ve been building up their technical and engineering chops in hopes of advancing even further in the competitions, MAKBots has also looked for ways to pay it forward.
That includes organizing and hosting a FIRST Robotics Summer Camp in August, once again with TMMTX’s help. The event accommodated two waves of 20 youngsters – each for two days at a time – including many who would have never experienced this specialized world if not for MAKBots’ outreach.
“Camps like this are generally a week long and cost up to $400 per student to attend,” says Stephanie Garcia, analyst in Government Relations and External Affairs at TMMTX. “Most of these kids come from what’s referred to as the ‘poverty belt’ of San Antonio, where 88 percent of the students receive free or reduced cost lunch. More than 30 of the teams we sponsor live in these underserved communities.”
The cost to attend the MAKBots’ camp? Free. That’s because the team created the curriculum and served as the teachers. And it’s because TMMTX provided a room for the sessions and donated $7,500 to pay for the FIRST Legos kits, snacks, T-shirts and other amenities.
Li says the MAKBots know they wouldn’t exist if not for the help of others. So it’s especially gratifying for them to be able to return the favor.
“When I’ve asked them what was the most exciting moment of the past season, many members said it was the opportunity to teach what they’ve learned to younger students at the camp,” says Li. “The campers had a lot of fun. I hope they become crazy about robots and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).”
An Investment in Our Future
Ultimately, that’s what this robot business is really all about. Companies like Toyota depend on a steady flow of graduates with STEM-related degrees who can manage their advanced manufacturing plants, design their next-generation products and push the technology envelope in research and development. FRC can nurture a passion for such fields at a young age, much in the same way school sports can challenge aspiring athletes.
Texas certainly gets it. The state now sanctions FIRST Robotics competitions as part of the University Interscholastic League
that also governs extracurricular academic, athletic and music contests.
Rest assured Toyota will to continue to look for opportunities to help organizations that promote STEM education.
“I can tell you that the MAKBots team members are very proud to have the TMMTX logo on their shirts,” says Li. “And it certainly means a lot to me to work for a company that supports them and so many other teams. It’s an investment in their future, and ours.”
By Dan Miller