To: Mr. Ken Rosen
Regional Director
FIRST Minneapolis, MN

Dear Mr. Rosen,
We are writing you to congratulate you on the growth during the last seven years of the FIRST Robotics Competition in Minnesota. “FIRST” is an acronym that stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” and it was founded in 1989 by the famous inventor Dean Kamen, who is known for inventing the Segway.

A 2012 report by President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology stated that over the next decade, 1 million additional STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates will be needed. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Education found that only 16 percent of U.S. high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career. To help solve some of this problem, we should all pitch in and help Gort.

Sci-fi aficionados will remember that Gort is the all-powerful humanoid robot in the classic movie, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” The movie reflected an American consensus that technological prowess is what won World War II. The development of other countries’ possession of nuclear weapons and the shock of the 1957 launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union fueled our country’s drive for excellence in STEM disciplines. But, frankly, with the fall of the Soviet Union, our focus has drifted away from the importance of STEM.

However, we are really good at football. It is hardly possible to be near a TV set on any Saturday or Sunday (let alone Monday night) without seeing a football game. Most newspaper headlines that refer to our centers of higher education are related to football scores, not STEM innovation. Our most recent and enduring political controversy has involved the public financing of yet a newer professional football stadium. And so if Gort ever needed our help, it is now.

The FIRST Robotics Competition is all about engaging high school students in a state and then national competition to build a robot to accomplish a particular task. That task, and the rules and budget that each team must follow, is announced each January. The process is described at the FIRST website: www.usfirst.org. This is a very intensive process, because the build session is less than seven weeks long and runs from January 4 through February 18. The Minnesota regional competition culminates in a dual regional at the University of Minnesota (both Williams and Mariucci arenas) from March 27 to 29—with more than 120 high school teams. This will be the largest such regional competition in the nation.

A northern double regional will be held in Duluth at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on March 6 to 8; the U.S. national competition will then be held in St. Louis on April 25 to 27. Finally, because this is sanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League, championship competition for the state’s top 24 teams will be held at Williams Arena on May 17. The Minnesota program has grown from two teams to 180 teams in just seven seasons—congratulations again.

It is an old adage that you get more of what you celebrate. We have never heard anyone say that we need more high school football players; and we appear to have quite a few. By establishing a program through the Minnesota State High School League that allows team members to earn a varsity letter, we’ve started a celebration of STEM pursuits. In fact, with 180 FIRST Robotics Competition teams in Minnesota high schools, there are now more of those teams than there are boys’ varsity hockey teams.

As with sports, participation in robotics helps high school students develop strong teamwork, problem solving and communication skills. Many of these robotics teams have their own websites, blogs and Facebook pages where these skills (in addition to social media) are clearly evident, like the Green Machine, Team 1816 of Edina: www.edinarobotics.com.

It is important that we all become more STEM literate, and celebrating robotics competition at the high school level helps build this kind of enthusiasm. As our society becomes more complex and public policy becomes ever more important in our lives, it is important for citizens to be more familiar and comfortable with STEM topics.

This is the beginning of the 2014 FIRST Robotics Competition season. Teams will be out soliciting sponsors, mentors and other business and community support. For anyone who has ever complained about the lack of high school rigor, or the lack of STEM students or awareness, this is the time to go to the FIRST website www.usfirst.org and contribute. Minnesota has a great tradition of science and technology—our medical device industry is but one example of our state’s engineering heritage. But more needs to be done and soon. Our businesses, leaders, and employers need to support this program. Go to the regional and state competition to see something at least as interesting as a high school football game.

Gort: “America barada nikto.”

Vance K. Opperman
A robotics supporter

Vance K. Opperman (vopperman@keyinvestment.com) is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business.

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