This weekend in St, Louis at the Edward Jones Dome over 30,000 students, parents and coaches will gather for one of the most inspiring, creative and interactive team events that will be held in the Dome all year. It isn’t football or soccer, lacrosse or cricket or rugby. It is competitive robotics. The U.S. FIRST is back for the fourth straight year, and is quickly becoming one of the most intriguing co-ed competitions of any “sport” out there. It is entitled FIRST, standing for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology and was the brainchild of Segway PT inventor Dean Kamen 25 years ago with the goal of boosting science in the way that high schools glorify sports.
This past week President Obama got to see the interactive robots shoot hoops as he talked about science and sport growing with Americas children. Several thousand people showed up at New York’s Javitz Convention Center to see that City’s finals, replete with cheerleaders and blaring music.
The weekend long event is the culmination of work by middle and high school students from across the country, each team of whom had to first score well in regional tournaments to move on to the state events, with the winners moving on to the World Championships in St. Louis.
The competition is not your father’s Erector Set version of building a robot. Each team trains for weeks many using the LEGO Mind Storm system to have its robot perform a series of complex tasks in 2:30 against another table of robots. The tension will be palpable and the sense of team very, very apparent.
However what is more amazing is the sense of fun, competition and creativity that each of the teams will have on throughout the event. From posters to mascots to elongated signs, the students and their supporters cheer with a fervor that would match any athletic event. Everyone who goes sees the best of what New Jersey has to offer…healthy competition with a mosaic of children from every ethnic and social background in a healthy competition devoid of many of the trappings that childhood events have these days. There may be some uber parents in the crowd, but most were there for good natured support both moral and emotional.
Club robotic competitions have propped up all around the country and are growing with each passing semester, from sixth grade through high school. There is no “Revenge of the Nerds” feeling at all. Most of the kids look fit, coordinated and ready to do battle in every form of athletics as well as a competition of the mind. Indeed, mind sports, from robotics to other activities like chess, bridge and even poker, are being seen more and more by organizations like the International Olympic Committee as a way to teach strategy that applies to traditional athletics and help grow the whole young person, combining a healthy mind with a healthy body. Also the rise of “Money Ball” in traditional athletics, where front office positions are being taken up by young people who understand business and strategy as well as athletic fundamentals, is also spurring a new generation where young people will take academics and team activities in the lab or the classroom as seriously as many take athletics. For a rising immigrant population that is more focused in many ways on academics but who is still trying to assimilate to American culture through athletics, activities like robotics provide a great balance. For young people who like athletics but are not into the ultra-competitive areas of Little League or Gymnastics, robotics and mind sports can also provide a balance, instilling that sense of team and competition while sating the mind and the skills they excel at as well.
For brands looking to activate against an audience that understands both team competition and gaming, robotics is also a unique answer for engagement. Now it is not to say that analytics and team competitions like robotics should be at the detriment of traditional sports. There is a place for both, and the two actually complement each other very well. However in a society today where young people are getting more and more technologically savvy, competitions like mind sports and robotics can fill a growing need, keeping young people active and involved and finding ways to stimulate the mind as well as the body.
Is it the start of a long term trend of cyber warriors, or a fad like crystal radios and rocketry was in the 1960?s or 1970?s? The jury is still out, but judging from the crowds, the engagement and the spirit of competition, the “sport” of competitive robotics is here to stay, and that is not a bad thing for a young group who wants to grow into a well-rounded and healthy adult.
Most importantly robotics takes kids interested in science, gaming and technology as well as sport, and puts them into a public setting where they have to actually interact with each other, a revolutionary idea in a world where “interaction” is done more by thumbs and keystrokes not by spoken words and actions as a group.
While not replacing traditional athletics in any way, robotics is becoming more and more intriguing, a well-intentioned and healthy type of “sport” whose time is definitely coming.