SCHOOLS

Robotics program teaches life skills

Team “Inspiration” is an award-winning FIRST Tech Challenge robotics team comprised of students from eight local-area middle schools and high schools. (photo by Cynthia Kurose)

Robotics program teaches life skills

Students from multiple schools across Scripps Ranch and surrounding communities are learning valuable life skills outside of the classroom through a robotics program that fosters self-confidence, communication and leadership.

For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1989 and has since gained worldwide recognition. While it is rooted in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) principles, Dean Kamen, the organization’s founder, explained that the organization’s programs are more comprehensive in terms of the lessons students learn.

“FIRST is more than robots. The robots are a vehicle for students to learn important life skills. Kids often come in not knowing what to expect of the program nor of themselves. They leave … with a vision, with confidence and with a sense that they can create their own future,” according to the FIRST website.

A robot on display during an open house hosted by team “Inspiration” in Scripps Ranch on Aug. 26. (photo by Cynthia Kurose)

The organization has four levels of robotics programs, separated by both age and skill level. FIRST LEGO League Junior is designed to capture the curiosity of children in grades kindergarten through fourth grade, with motorized LEGO elements used as the primary robot construction material. FIRST LEGO League (FLL) also utilizes LEGOs for robot building and caters to students in grades four through eight.

At the FLL level, teams have three primary focus areas: robot, which involves construction of a LEGO robot for competition; project, in which team members research a real-world problem then develop a solution to be presented before judges; and core values, which include discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork and fun.

Evan Edmonds is a fifth grader from Scripps Ranch who is part of an FLL team at The Cambridge School.

“I thought it might be fun because of the research you get to do in project,” he said when describing why he first decided to join. “The core values could help me in anything [in life], and the robot could help me learn engineering for when I get older for a job.”

FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) is geared toward students in grades seven through 12, utilizes industrial building materials, and involves programing and more advanced processes. The most advanced group, FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), is open only to high school students in grades nine through 12.

Alex Szeto is a Scripps Ranch resident and is the FTC coach for the multiple award-winning team “Inspiration,” which is comprised of students from Marshall Middle School, Black Mountain Middle School, Scripps Ranch High School, Rancho Bernardo High School, Torrey Pines High School, Del Norte High School, The Cambridge School, and Design 39 Campus. Among the team members are his twin tenth graders, Colin and Mabel.

Colin Szeto first expressed interest in the program after attending an FLL open house in second grade.

“The best thing about FLL is that it uses LEGOs as a basis for teaching,” he said.

Colin’s sister, Mabel, joined the program the following year. Although she acknowledged having had a preference for art over science at the time, she also found the LEGO aspect appealing.

Mabel and Colin agreed that the values that FIRST teaches are what have kept them interested in and passionate about the program for the last eight years, even after advancing to the FTC level, which does not use LEGOs for robot construction.

“The core values are about being a good person, being a good teammate, being respectful toward others and being a gracious professional,” she said. “The focus of FIRST is about getting better and learning and passing that on, not just about winning.”

Passing on their knowledge in service to others is something that Mabel, Colin and many of their peers have dedicated countless hours to through volunteer mentoring.

“My team teaches every week, 52 weeks a year,” Alex Szeto said. Whether hosting an open house, teaching a robotics summer camp, delivering a presentation at a local college or science museum, or virtually mentoring a FIRST robotics team in West Africa through 6 a.m. video conference calls, these students are committed to upholding the values imparted by the FIRST organization. Colin Szeto finds mutual benefit in having the opportunity to give back.

“It changes lives,” he said.

For more information about FIRST and its programs, visit firstinspires.org.

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