5 May 2001 josborn   » (Journeyer)

Went to the National Science Bowl today at the National 4H Center in Chevy Chase to show off our FIRST robot (i.e. our glorified R/C car). It was sort of cool. Dave Lavery, a NASA guy who works at headquarters in D.C., talked about the history of robotics at NASA specifically for Mars exploration. Did you know that NASA was originally planning to send an SUV sized robot to Mars to collect soil samples? It was supposed to have a whole bunch of cameras and computers. It would survey the landscape by taking a whole bunch of pictures, would analyze them for 90 minutes, and then move a meter and repeat the process. Turns out an intern built a robot out of an R/C car that would lift hockey pucks and bring them back to a beacon. He had the robot (called Tooth) there.

As for the FIRST part of the talk, I was a little disappointed. FIRST is usually pretty good at promoting itself, without necessarily promoting the field of robotics. You could also tell how much student involvement there is in FIRST by the crowd there. We had one NASA guy, one school had a college mentor, one had a teacher, and we had three students (and no teachers or engineers). I also don't like how you get filed into two categories with FIRST: a student that knows nothing, or a gearhead engineer. I'm an aspiring gearhead engineer, but I always get treated like a student that knows nothing by the gearhead engineers. FIRST just wants more people to join so they look good and the kids are off the street hanging out with engineers even if they don't learn anything. I think it would be good if FIRST could teach kids the specifics behind the programming, electronics and mechanics since these things transfer to the real world robotics field. Dave actually talked about how FIRST doesn't teach the kids anything new but lets them apply what they've already learned (or haven't learned). I think that FIRST needs to do a few things differently: Make it a point to teach kids more, Limit engineer involvement, and Make part of the competition partly autonomous (in that order).

I'm looking forward to working with kids in the FIRST Lego League however, because I think that's set up well. Kids learn a lot and are required to build the robot themselves.

I'm whining about FIRST again, but I've been involved for two years and I'd like to see some change. I'll probably email or send a letter to the leadership there.

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