Building Young People’s Soft Skills Through Robotics

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Attention: The following article was published over 8 years ago, and the information provided may be aged or outdated. Please keep that in mind as you read the post.

With my daughter starting high school in the fall, we have recently attended several open house sessions to get to know more about the school, the staff and the activities available. On one of the more recent visits to the school, the agenda consisted of meeting the athletic department and coaching staff for the various sports offered. As I’m looking at the schedule, I see the list of usual sports such as basketball, volleyball, soccer and football. But there in the middle of the list is “Robotics Team.” Being the geek Dad that I am, I become instantly intrigued. Although I couldn’t seem to drag my daughter into attending its presentation, I decided to force my tech-savvy 9-year-old son to go with me instead.

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about robotics competition is the design and building of the robots, but of course that’s just the developer side of me. What I didn’t realize is that there is a lot more effort that goes on throughout the whole course of a year than just the designing, building and competing of the actual robot. The design and build phase of the competition is actually only six weeks! The rest of the time is used to help the program through various activities used to generate both financial and intellectual support.

What I learned in that short session is that the robotics team in high school presents an incredible opportunity for young people to develop their soft skills. During that time they’ll also gain a wide range of experiences that should help them succeed in the business environment even if they don’t choose a path that directly involves technology.

The FIRST Robotics Competition

Most high schools that have a robotics team that participates in the FIRST Robotics Competition, whose goal is to generate more interest and involvement in science and technology for young people. FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” and was founded by Dean Kamen in 1989.

The program is supported by a wide range of corporate sponsors that are involved in the science or technology sectors such as Boeing, Microsoft, National Instruments, Google, Texas Instruments and United Technologies to name a few. The heart of each team is of course the students themselves. In addition to the students, adults fulfilling mentoring roles can be teachers, parents, college students, professional engineers or any interested adult. The mentors are a very important part of the teams that help create a bridge between the students and the business community.

At the beginning of the competition season, each team is delivered a “Kit of Parts” and that year’s game description and rules. The kit contains a set of base parts used to build the robot and typically includes motors, structural components, wheels, pneumatic actuators, a control system and the programming and design software. Many of these parts have been provided by the sponsors mentioned earlier.

Once the kit has been delivered, the clock starts and the teams have six weeks to design and build their robot before they have to ship it off for competition. Teams may also fabricate their own parts or buy additional off the shelf parts, however the parts purchased cannot exceed $400 USD individually with a total maximum budget of $4000. The game description and rules are essentially the specifications of the contest for that year. For example, the 2013 game was titled “Ultimate Ascent” and loosely based upon the disc golf sport.

Where the soft skills come in:

The work doesn’t just begin when the “Kit of Parts” is delivered, which is near the first of the calendar year. When the students, such as my daughter, begin high school in the fall, they need to start their fundraising and recruiting efforts as soon as possible from September through December. To achieve their fundraising or recruitment goals, the team builds a presentation that they will take on the road to companies and college campuses within their local area and seek out support that could be in the form of financial assistance, technical mentoring skills or even in the form of parts and supplies.

This is the point during the robotic team’s recruiting pitch where my not-so-subtle and easily-distracted mind perked up and shouted inwardly “Wait a minute, that’s really freaking sweet!” From then on, all I could think about was how everything that they do during the course of the year directly correlates between their activities and what we experience in business and technology on a daily basis. While I don’t have any direct experience with this program, I began to feel that they have managed to compress years’ worth of business-related experience into a fairly short amount of time.

A lot of people will naturally latch onto the engineering and technology facets of the program, which are absolutely amazing no doubt. But I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the intangible benefits. For example, the presentations the teams must provide to local business and universities to garner support for their program. Other than joining a local club such as Toastmasters International or similar, there aren’t really that many situations where you can practice these types of presentations in a real business environment. (At least none that I’m aware of.) I can’t begin to imagine the impact these experiences alone might have for a young person well before they begin college or start their careers.

During the period for producing a working robot, participants will gain experience similar to most of the common situations that we as developers, project managers and business representatives face routinely. They’ll need to learn to develop a strong work ethic, be able to communicate well and work efficiently within a team dynamic. The students will also need to be able to adapt and be creative in their problem solving skills. The team will also be under a fair amount of pressure to produce a finalized product in a condensed amount of time and within a stringent budget.

And then the robot has to actually work, so there will probably several rounds of design, build, test, re-design, re-factor, re-test and at some point finally get approval or signoff that the robot conforms to the specs and performs as it should.

Introducing Agile to Robotics

As I’m sitting there half listening and half mulling this whole thing over, I began to ponder the possibilities of introducing Agile methodologies into the mix. Since the whole design and build phase is only six weeks, I could easily see this broken down into one or two week sprints with certain goals or themes applied to those sprints. There are lots of different functions or “user stories” that include programming the controls, electrical wiring, mechanical engineering, fabrication and the list goes on. I imagine these teams are already being run in a self-organizing manner, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to adopt that portion of Agile.

I think the idea of the daily standup would be an incredibly invaluable piece of the puzzle as well, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were already doing that in an informal fashion and didn’t even realize it. The use of the big visible scrum wall with index cards and tasks being moved through the process would help everyone keep apprised of the current progress.

The only part of the whole Scrum space that I’m not sure applies is the estimation, project tracking charts, burn down, velocity, etc. Are those really important here? Do they make sense to adhere to the letter and intent of Scrum in this scenario? Hmmmmm, I need to mull all of this over some more. I think it would be very interesting to watch a team go through their normal routine for a season to see how they handle the process. And then apply Agile methodologies to see if there’s a benefit to be seen.

Final Thoughts

After giving it much consideration, I believe the FIRST Robotic Competition is an incredible opportunity for young people to gain some invaluable experience. The program has the potential to produce some of the finest leaders in business, even if they don’t pursue a field directly related to engineering or technology. And although every person’s first job in high school will provide students with a chance to develop their soft skills, I feel that the FIRST program offers a very unique perspective that transfers directly into the business environment today. Parents, please take note!

I can’t also help but wonder if we as local engineers, businesses, colleges and members of the community are doing enough at a local level to help give young people a positive and intellectually challenging environment in which to grow.

— Jonny Hackett, [email protected]


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