The Nerds of the North robotics team has a saying: "'Nerd' is a four-letter word with a six-figure salary." Alaska's only FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team, number 568, is in its 15th year.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was started by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and the portable insulin pump, back in 1992. Dimond High School Engineering Academy teacher Wade Roach says that Kamen thought "one of the big problems was that our young people didn't worship scientists and technicians; they were excited about athletes and movie stars." So Kamen came up with the idea of a sports-type competition that used engineering skills. FRC was born.
Over the years FRC grew and other levels of the robotics club were established: FIRST Lego League (FLL) for younger students and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) for middle schoolers, with FRC being the pinnacle of competition. The event is a spectacle, with a basketball court-sized playing field and giant robots. The teams compete but also work together to gain points, in something FIRST calls "Co-Opertition." Each year FIRST picks a different theme for its competition and the teams get 6 weeks to build their robots before they compete. This year's theme is Recycling Rush, where robots stack containers and collect trash (pool noodles) to gain points for recycling.
Team 568 is comprised of students from Dimond, Bartlett and East high schools. It's a chance for young people to gain skills in engineering, programing and building, but it also lets them work on their social skills. Part of the FIRST ethos is "Gracious Professionalism"; students are encouraged to share their ideas, be outgoing, and compete with respect and grace. The skills they gain not only prepare them for their future professions but for life.
Electrical engineer for 568 Fred Chun talked about helping a student at Dimond High School with her electric wheelchair recently. "Her control box was broken so a friend and I went over to help her. We couldn't have done that three years ago; we would have been confused." But with the electrical skills he learned through the engineering program at Dimond he had the knowledge to fix her wheelchair. "It felt pretty nice too."
Team 568 is competing in the FIRST World Championships in St. Louis April 22-25. "The scope of the competition is an order of magnitude larger than anything we have experienced," says Roach. "The entire Edward-Jones Dome is filled with robots. Eight fields of 70+ teams each. Massive pit areas. It is incredible!!!"