FIRST®: Helping Today’s Youth Find Tomorrow’s STEM Careers
By Roberta Martone Pavia
Jill spends her mornings discussing the state of the state with Oregon’s Governor. Alex spends his afternoons testing code for commands used to drive NASA’s Mars Rover. And, Alisha prepares for an evening interview with Israel’s Minister of Science and Technology. Sounds like the start of promising careers for three different students from three different cities with one common connection: FIRST®.
FIRST— For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — was founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen because he wanted to inspire interest in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines. Long before STEM was a ubiquitous buzzword, Kamen realized that a talent deficit existed in today’s workforce due to lack of these skills — statistics showed that while high-tech industries were growing rapidly, the numbers of qualified engineers, technologists, and scientists were not. Kamen recognized the void and was determined to do something about it. That something is FIRST.
Learning to Build Real-World Skills
For more than two decades, the organization’s goal has been to engage students in grades K through 12 in mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, while at the same time fostering self-confidence, communication, and leadership abilities. While at FIRST, participants also learn 21st century skills like collaboration, creative problem solving, and teamwork — critical tools that can help them in real life, as well as in their future careers. In addition, as part of all FIRST programs, team members work closely with coaches, mentors, and parent volunteers from all areas of the business, government, and the non-profit worlds.
Through its innovative programs, students can get involved with a FIRST team at any point in their development:
Junior FIRST® LEGO® League (Jr. FLL®) Grades K-3
FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL®) Grades 4-8
FIRST® Tech Challenge (FTC®) Grades 7-12
FIRST® Robotics Competition (FRC®) Grades 9-12
As participants in these programs, team members learn science, technology, and engineering skills through innovative projects and robotics competitions, solving real-world problems along the way. For example, in previous FLL challenges, team members have brainstormed creative solutions for issues such as food safety, biomedical engineering, nanotechnology, transportation, and the quality of life for handicapped individuals. In FTC and FRC, students have built and programmed robots to throw balls, toss rings, climb poles, and hang from bars.
At the end of each season, more than 650 teams and 12,000 youth from around the world meet to compete in an annual “Sport for the Mind™” event — the FIRST Championship. Awards are presented for engineering inspiration, entrepreneurship, team spirit, and rookie of the year, among others — as well as for “Gracious Professionalism®,” a term coined by FIRST and defined as “a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.”
Employment Opportunities at Renowned Businesses and Non Profits
Today, the initial group of 28 teams competing in New Hampshire in 1992 has grown to over 30,000 teams in the United States and 80 countries around the world — and their impact has been dramatic. Since it began more than 25 years ago, FIRST has given students from every walk of life — whether they are A-plus students or students struggling to make the grade — a chance to excel.
Research has shown that as a result of participating in FIRST, 98 percent* of team members have improved problem solving skills, 95 percent* have improved time management skills, 93 percent* have better developed conflict resolution skills, and more than 76 percent* have stronger communication skills. In addition, when these same students graduate from high school to pursue advanced education, they are two times as likely to major in science and engineering**. In fact, recent statistics show that 41 percent** of FIRST alumni major in engineering and 89.6*** percent of alumni are in a STEM field as a student or professional.
Hundreds of FIRST team members have interned at some of the world’s most prestigious institutions like NASA and Google. They’ve also been involved with world renowned non-profits such as the Girl Scouts, National 4-H Council, and Boys & Girls Clubs of America. And, they’ve engaged with well-respected business organizations like Boeing, FedEx, General M, National Instruments, PTC, Rockwell Collins, SpaceX, and United Technologies. Today, many FIRST alumni hold coveted positions throughout the business world, in government organizations, and in higher education — in addition to the fields of science, technology, and engineering.
So whether a young person is contemplating a profession in technology, mildly interested in science, or simply wants to build and program robots for the fun of it, FIRST is a great place to start. It might just lead to a promising career in the STEM fields. Or, at the very least, an opportunity to hone critical skills that can be applied in the real world.
* Brandeis University, Cross-Program Evaluation of FTC and FRC (2011); Evaluation of the 2012-13 FLL Program (2013)
** Brandeis University, More than Robots: Evaluation of FRC Participant and Institutional Impacts (2005)
***FIRST, 2011 Survey of FRC and FTC Alumni
Roberta Martone Pavia has been a consultant and writer in the high tech and higher education fields for 20-plus years, providing thought leadership articles for FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, as well as MIT, Simmons College, and Springfield College. She has been published in the Boston Globe, Boston.com, Shattered magazine, Parents & Kids magazine, The Parents Paper, COMMUNITY magazines, and the TAB newspapers. Comments on this article should be addressed to Marian Murphy, Creative Services Manager at FIRST.