Tag Archives: Dean Kamen

FIRST Robotics: Brain Power in Action

HomeFIRST Robotics is an amazing organization, founded  in 1989 with a mission to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders.

Founder Dean Kamen articulates his vision for FIRST, “To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”

For years, ThinkFun’s CEO Bill Ritchie has participated as a guest judge – here’s a fun video he shared of a tournament in action! Recently, ThinkFun was thrilled to support the brilliant local teens of Herndon High School’s FIRST Robotics Team. This team recently wrapped up an amazing season, and their coach shared the following update – enjoy!


This past weekend Herndon Robotics participated in the DC Regional FIRST robotics competition!  When we went to Raleigh 2 weeks before, we finished 49th out of 54.  In DC, my team ended up 2nd out of 59!  The finals are best 2 out of 3 matches and we crushed the other alliance in the quarter finals; had a super intense semi-finals where we lost the first match, and thought we lost the second one and were out (unreliable real-time scoring) when we had actually won by 5 points, and won the third match taking us to the finals… Unfortunately, while we won the first round of the finals, one of our alliance partners’ robot died in that round and they were unable to repair it and we lost the next 2 matches.  But by keeping our 2nd place standing, we won a wild-card spot to the Championship in St. Louis.

DC is where our team submits essays for some pretty big awards that are based on what your team does besides build a robot.  We won the Engineering Inspiration Award thanks to our stepping up and adopting a team from Israel by providing batteries and power tools for them to use since they could not bring their own, for our amazing outreach, including taking our interactive SquareBots to the Udvar-Hazy Center’s Halloween event, Air and Scare and to the Moon and Beyond Event, for our Robotics Poetry book, and for our team creating an animation contest for other teams after Autodesk cancelled the animation contest they had run for more than a decade.  The judges we’ve lined up for this contest include judges from Pixar, Autodesk, Disney, and the creator of Pinky and the Brain!

I could go on for hours about this team, so I’ll end it with a few pictures from the event!

Pic 1Pic 1: Our Human Player, Alex, feeding ED 14.0 while our driver, Megan (orange hat), looks on.  The robots can only hold up to 4 discs at a time, and will receive a penalty if carrying more than 4 (this includes any that may bet stuck on any part of the robot).

Pic 2Pic 2: Scoring Frisbees in the top 3 pt goal (other goals are worth 2 pts and 1 pt).

pic 3Pic 3: Our Chairman’s presentation group, Danny, Leah, and Alice. Their presentation was to 3 judges and is what made those judges send other judges to our pit to talk with the team some more and was key to us winning the Engineering Inspiration award.  The students talked to 13 judges total (15 if you count the 2 who ask solely about the robot and it’s abilities).

Again your support for our team this season is truly recognized and appreciated by all our members. The accomplishments listed in this email are just as much yours as they are the team members who were recognized this weekend.

Regards, Matthew L.

Herndon High School FIRST Robotics Team 116
Outreach Captain

Attack of the Robot(ic)s!

ThinkFun CEO Bill Ritchie and his video camera have returned from the FIRST Robotics Tournament!

The energy in this video is just incredible (check out the line dancing!), and it’s clear these young engineers are prepared not only to tackle the challenges of tomorrow, but also to inspire the next generation of problem solvers!   For more on Bill’s experience as a judge, check out his new blog Bill’s Big Picture!!

Getting to the Heart of Problem Solving

The following is an article by ThinkFun CEO Bill Ritchie, recently published in ThinkFun’s bi-weekly Classroom Connection newsletter.  To receive these mailings, click here

This weekend I am off to volunteer as a judge at the FIRST Robotics New Jersey Regional Tournament, which I do every year. Founded by legendary engineer Dean Kamen, this is a wonderful program that teams high school students with adult professional engineers. Each team has six weeks to build a robot with special skills such as placing soccer balls into hanging baskets, and then we gather for a big weekend tournament and have a blast! The best teams move on to the National Championship.

FIRST calls this program “The varsity sport for the mind.” To be successful, teams must have strong engineering skills and be well organized. Most basically, though, successful teams are those whose members have learned how to be good problem solvers.

So what makes a good problem solver? For these kids, certainly it involves creative imagination. Should your robot have an arm to lift the ball or a leg to kick it into the goal? Do you focus on offense or defense? And once you decided the big directions, how can you tweak your design to ensure best performance?

A Robot on Display at the 2009 FIRST Tournament

As a non-engineer, I’m not qualified to evaluate the engineering choices teams make. Rather, I serve as a “Team Attribute” judge, which means I ask questions like, “What are you doing to make your community a better place?” and “How are you mentoring younger kids to understand your values and aspire to be like you?” The FIRST organization encourages teams to see themselves as leaders and innovators and to aspire to the strong FIRST value system, and the kids’ responses are just amazing.

Both through their creations and in speaking with these young engineers, I get to see what is in these kids’ hearts. With the most dedicated and inspired teams, I see the same problem solving skills at play. The choices are humanist rather than engineering, and they all involve creative imagination and a blend of strategy, planning, collaboration, and execution. At the underlying core of it all, the decisions these kids make all stem from passion and perseverance… Robotics with heart!

I spend a lot my time thinking about problem solving… and if you are reading this, I bet you do also. It’s a very hard thing to define, and thus a hard thing to measure or test. But it’s really important!

Here’s what I believe: Problem solving starts deep in the emotions. It starts with a drive, a desire to get someplace, a belief that you can achieve. From there, you gain experience, by observing, modeling, trying, stretching yourself. Through this you learn confidence and perseverance, and then you’re on your way!

What do you believe makes a true problem solver? Please share your comments and let’s get the dialogue flowing!