Approximately 700 Vancouver and Portland high school students will brave the predawn darkness Saturday morning and descend upon Vancouver’s Evergreen High School with one thing in mind: building robots.

FIRST Robotics students in Clark County

FIRST Robotics students build a robot as part of their after-school program.

This weekend is the launch of the 2012 FIRST Robotics Competition, a national program in which teams of high school students – with the help of adult mentors – spend six weeks designing, building, and programming a robot using common parts to accomplish a specific task.


Saturday’s kickoff event begins at 7 a.m. with a brief opening ceremony featuring chief sponsor David Madore, CEO of Vancouver-based technology firm US Digital, and Oregon State Sen. Mark Hass, Chair of the Senate Education Committee.

At 7:30 a.m. there will be a special broadcast from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announcing the task each robot will have to perform. Teams will then receive kits containing official parts and spend the rest of the day in workshops.

Each kit nationwide will include a special encoder donated by US Digital at a total value of $50,000. US Digital also sponsors two local teams: 2011 national finalist Team Mean Machine, comprised of students from Camas, Washougal, Hockinson, and Hayes Freedom High Schools; and the Green Wrenches Team from Evergreen High School.

National competition two decades old

Founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen, the creator of the electric human transporter Segway, the competition has grown from an initial 28 teams to more than 2,400 teams in North America. During local and regional competition, teams are judged for design, technology, sportsmanship, and commitment to FIRST Robotics.

The ultimate prize is landing a spot at the national FIRST Robotics World Championships in St. Louis, Mo., which is what Team Mean Machine did last April. Although the team didn’t advance out of the first round, students said they learned invaluable technological and life skills in the process.

“I think it’s really going to set me on a path to go somewhere, because before Robotics I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life,” said Team Mean Machine leader and Camas High school student Henry Midles. “I had no idea I was good at leading teams because I had never done that before, [but] it really came naturally once I started doing it.”

Communication, teamwork essential

Adult mentors say the program challenges student’s wits, self-discipline, and ability to work as a team.

“The programmer needs to communicate with the builders, and the builders need to communicate with electronics,” said Christian Kaneen, an adult mentor with Green Wrenches. “That’s one of the biggest areas that they grow in. They develop an ability to communicate with each other. They also gain appreciation for what do you do with math or science and why is it important.”

Another Green Wrenches mentor, Teri Stuart Wegmann, marvels at the transformation she witnesses in students’ lives through FIRST Robotics. She says they often start out awkward and reserved, but in the thick of competition, they blossom.

“These kids who couldn’t carry on a sentence with anyone are talking to judges, they’re answering questions, they’re describing what they’ve done,” she said.

Business community urged to support FIRST Robotics teams

Madore would like to see more businesses sponsor local FIRST Robotics, saying it is crucial to invest in the next generation of engineering and technology leaders. Teams have to raise $10,000 of support, either through grants, fundraising, or business sponsorships.

“It’s also about communicating together as a team, and being able to talk to judges and cooperate,” he said. “That’s real world stuff.”

Shot and edited by Miles Burnett
Audio by Evan Newman