FIRST’s new plans to make its winning, real-world, STEM learning model even more impactful.
INTERVIEW | by Mark Gura and Victor Rivero
“For Inspiration and Recognition of Science & Technology”—or simply, FIRST, is the world’s leading youth-serving nonprofit advancing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Founded by inventor Dean Kamen in 1989, FIRST has evolved into a global movement by engaging millions of people with a proven game-changer for preparing kids to solve the world’s greatest problems. Their programs inspire innovation and leadership through engaging, hands-on robotics challenges developed to ignite curiosity and passion in students in grades K-12.
Don Bossi (pictured) serves as President of the organization; with a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from MIT, he has both the technical background and leadership skills that have helped bring the program forward over the past many years, and here he discusses with EdTech Digest Editor-at-Large Mark Gura the value of the incredible and lasting student experiences that constitute a program like no other.
Mark Gura: Thanks for giving us the time to interview you about the impact FIRST has made and continues to make in STEM education, and beyond, and to inform readers about what FIRST’s got planned and where it will be going in the future.
I’ve been following student robotics for a long time, and of course, to many educators like me, that means FIRST and FIRST LEGO League.
It’s not surprising that a lot of teachers already know about FIRST. But then again, there’s probably a greater number that still don’t. Among other things, today’s conversation will inform those who aren’t aware that this magnificent program is going on.
And also, there are a lot of teachers out there who’ve heard of FIRST, but to them it’s just robotics, teams, and STEM. But there’s much more that’s learned, so we want to sharpen up that understanding, too.
Don Bossi: That makes total sense. As educators understand it better, the light bulb will go off and they’ll understand why what FIRST does is different—and why it’s important.
Spreading FIRST’s Impact: More! Further! For All Kids!
Mark: Clearly there’s an effort to do new things that will bring FIRST to many more students, although apparently participation is already growing sharply every year. Let’s begin by talking about the impact that FIRST’s made so far.
Don: We’re now starting our seventh year of a longitudinal study about the impact of FIRST programs. Seven years ago, we recruited a cohort of about 1,000 students in schools in 10 different states throughout the United States, and from the very same schools, and in the very same math and science classes, we also recruited a cohort of 450, what we call control group kids.
For every year, those 1,000 were kids were brand new to FIRST, so they had just joined a team, and the 450 control group kids were in the same math and science classes, but not on a FIRST team. We’ve now studied those kids for going on seven years, and we’re just about ready to release the final fifth year report. In every year of the study, what’s been remarkable—and what the statisticians say is really rare—is that there’s this very significant statistical difference between the two populations. The kids who are participating in FIRST, if even for a year, show much higher interest in STEM careers, STEM knowledge, and STEM activities.
Mark: One direction for FIRST’s intended growth is equity-oriented. I see that there’s a major effort to bring FIRST’s programs to low-income areas. Areas, I guess, in particular, where STEM education hasn’t blossomed to the extent it has in the other areas; so maybe you could talk a little bit about what you’re doing there.
The part that’s really heartwarming about it is the kids who are less likely to naturally be encouraged to go into STEM, whether they’re young woman, people of color, people from low-income, show even greater gains.
Don: For kids who don’t come from a community where maybe their parents work in a STEM field or have college degrees, it’s really game-changing and eye-opening when they find out, “Hey, this could be fun, I may get good skills here.”
And those skills can lead to internships, scholarships, jobs, and career opportunities.
What we find is that FIRST definitely works; it definitely has a positive impact on the kids who participate, even compared to other kids who are interested in science and math.
But it’s really, really game-changing when you can get it into the hands of the kids who are least likely to come from an environment or a background where they’re naturally encouraged to think that way.
That’s why we want to make FIRST programs available and accessible to every kid everywhere. How do we better reach kids from rural communities, from inner-city communities, and other communities where this isn’t typically something they’re encouraged to do?
Back to your point about increasing awareness and understanding of FIRST, Mark, we’ve got a lot of white space to fill. Last season we were in about 12% of all schools K-12 in the United States, and they serve about 17% to 18% of the students. We also have community-based teams through Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs, and community centers. We recognize that school is the biggest youth-serving infrastructure in the country, and across the world, so if you can become part of the schools and school culture, then you’re going to make your programs more accessible to more kids.
We recognize that school is the biggest youth-serving infrastructure in the country, and across the world, so if you can become part of the schools and school culture, then you’re going to make your programs more accessible to more kids.
About two or three years ago, we made a very conscious decision to focus on getting all schools, school districts, superintendents, STEM directors, principals and educators in that pipeline, to better understand what FIRST is, and to embrace it, and recognize this is the way education needs to evolve in the coming years.
More Than Just Awareness; Real Support is Needed—and Given
Mark: Absolutely. But what’s needed is more than just getting the word out and raising consciousness. Because to have a FIRST team, you need a little bit of funding, and you need access to some mentors, and I gather you’re going to help some of these communities (the ones that aren’t low hanging fruit, that aren’t already onboard with STEM) acquire those things?
Don: Yep, part of it is to raise awareness, so that schools understand the value. But then, how do we make it easier for students to join and participate? And, as you said, we started with FIRST Robotics Competition, which is the high school-level program. And then 20 years ago, we introduced FIRST LEGO League to address middle and upper elementary school students. Since that time, we’ve also introduced FIRST LEGO League Junior, which goes all the way down to Kindergarten and exposes kids in K-4 to programming and (robot) building. And more recently, we introduced another program called FIRST Tech Challenge at the middle to high school level.
Further to your point, Mark, teams still need resources, and those resources could be money or mentors.
We bring together the education and corporate worlds. We want corporations to get involved, both to financially support teams, but also to provide their employees as mentors, as role models, as coaches.
We give these adult role models the opportunity to step in. They’re incredibly proud because they’re sharing their knowledge, their wisdom, and their experience with kids. And they really become life-changing role models for these students. So, trying to think about, how we engage that sort of corporate base; it doesn’t have to be just Fortune 100, 500 types of companies. You know, every auto dealership, every auto mechanic shop has technical people there that are good with their hands. They’re smart people. They know how to solve problems on the fly.
We give these adult role models the opportunity to step in. They’re incredibly proud because they’re sharing their knowledge, their wisdom, and their experience with kids.
Every electric utility company has a technical person on every street corner in America because when the lights go out, they’re there to fix the wires. One of our mentors who’s been with us for decades is a guy who owns a junkyard in Hammond, Indiana. He’s used to taking things apart and putting things together, and he’s a great role model for the kids.
We’re also trying to get teachers to see that, “Look, you don’t have to be an engineer to do this.” In a world where kids have access with the internet to almost any piece of information they need, they can learn from the best through videos online. You don’t have to know how to build a robot in order to coach a FIRST team; you just have to know how to guide kids’ experience.
When students say, “How do I do this?” all you have to say is, “That’s a great question. How do you think we figure that out?” Because that’s really the learning that happens in FIRST; the coach, the teacher, the mentor doesn’t have to be the answer book, and they’re just sort of the support infrastructure to help the kids figure out, “How would you do this? What would you do if I weren’t here? How do you think you’d tackle this problem?”
I want to be clear, a lot of our corporate supporters have been very generous, and more and more are wanting to reach out, and provide grants to not just the teams where their employees live, or in their back yard, but sort of their adopting school districts, and saying, “Hey, how do we get involved? How do we help make this program more available, and accessible, so that every kid has the same opportunities?”
Mark: What’s this FIRST Tech Challenge? Certainly I’m familiar with FIRST and FIRST LEGO League; I’ve been directly involved with them myself. I cheered when you came out with FIRST LEGO League Jr., and I love that there’s a continuum now, early childhood through high school.
Don: FIRST Tech Challenge uses Android smartphones and tablets as the controlling communication system between the driver station and the robot, and to control all the motors, and manipulators, and sensors of the robot. So we’re trying to show kids, “Hey, this cool technology that you all have in your pocket can do more than text, it can actually run a machine,” and that’s designed to be a very cost effective, very affordable, very accessible way to get more kids involved in the same level of STEM learning – in schools that may not have access to even the modest funding required for our previous programs.
FIRST Tech Challenge teams are typically about 10 to 15 kids, and it’s really designed to be fairly low cost. For about $1,000.00, a team can get up and running and have a great season.
Mark: To make participation easier and more cost effective, I was not aware of that, and I think your point about where mentors can come from is terrific. Yeah. You might live in Salina, Kansas, for instance, which may not have a Boeing, or another big firm there, but yeah, there’s a car dealership, and automobiles these days are highly sophisticated. A mechanic there could do a great deal in mentoring kids.
Don: Yeah. Another thing we are looking at is, how can we use technology to increase access to mentors—and this isn’t something we’ve developed yet, but I’d love to see an Uber-like app for mentors.
Don: Think of it as something students could use to FaceTime from their phone, right?
Mark: With mentors…
Don: Why not? If a person’s coaching a team, they might be in Nairobi, Kenya, they go onto an app and say, “I need mechanical help with our drivetrain,” and it sends out a beacon to anybody in the world in the FIRST community who has their app turned on.
Mark: Of course.
Don: And anyone that knows that topic can suddenly be live and FaceTime with them. That’s my vision and we’re starting down that path. If you know anybody that wants to help fund that, we’d love to work with them. With the technologies that exists today, there’s no reason that people shouldn’t have access to the greatest mentors, wherever they are.
Mark: I think we hit on a particularly fertile point there—maybe funding interest will sprout from this article.
I love what you were saying about how teachers don’t need to be engineers or even science teachers; they just need to be the kind of teacher who likes to guide kids in exploring their world that resonates for me loudly. Yes, of course, one aspect of the web is it is an easily accessible repository of whatever it is you need to know, how to play the guitar, how to program a computer, whatever. Yeah. It sounds like you’re on the cusp of something even greater.
Outreach, Participation, and Support
Don: We really feel that with what we’re doing programmatically, and with the technology that’s available, accessible, and affordable today—we’ll really see a much steeper growth here going forward. We’re excited about it.
Mark: Those are exciting ideas. Absolutely! You know, my own background includes being a teacher, a school administrator, and a school district administrator. I look at things from that perspective. Clearly you’re ramping up in numbers of teams, schools involved, kinds of school populations: more girls, more low-income neighborhoods, etc. One of the things I’ve always wondered about is getting more kids within each of these involved. Say you have a school that has a team, great, but how do you get more of the kids in the school to be involved with that team?
Don: That’s a brilliant question. About three years ago, we started thinking about how we can help educators better understand this. And again, our FIRST community usually leads us to the right answer. We’ve seen so many teachers who were saying, “Oh, my gosh, not only is this an amazing after school program, but considering the kinds of things the kids are learning in it, how can we be more holistic about distributing that to all students?”
I guess there are two thoughts I want to share.
One is, I always cringe when people call us a “robotics” program, because yes, we are, we use robots; it’s sort of the campfire around which we get kids to sit. There are a couple reasons for that; a robot is a system, it’s got mechanical, it’s got electrical, it’s got software. It covers every form of technology you can imagine.
Secondly, when a robot moves, to a kid that means something they created in their head has just become alive. And, I won’t say it’s exactly the same, like but you could say it’s about, as exciting as parents maybe feel when they give birth. Right? It’s like, “You just gave birth to something new that is capable of doing amazing things.” For kids, it’s an incredibly engaging platform, but it’s just a platform we happen to use. We don’t think every kid in the world has to be a roboticist. We honestly don’t think every kid in the world has to be an engineer.
When a robot moves, to a kid that means something they created in their head has just become alive.
If they think logically, and understand the rules of nature, we think they’ll be better citizens, better people no matter what course they choose. But we find it’s a very engaging platform that really exposes kids to something that’s exciting. It lends itself to competitions, which brings in the sport element, the excitement from that, find it’s an incredibly engaging platform.
As Dean Kamen, our founder, says, “At our competitions, only one robot wins, but we want all the kids to win.” That’s really what we’re about. How do you reach and impact more kids? To your question, gee, if you have a team at a school, if you have a FIRST LEGO League team in your elementary school, that’s only 10 kids, what about the other 400 kids in the school?
Mark: Yeah. Exactly!
Don: What we saw was our leading light, the teachers who were early adopters that really got it. They that saw how amazing the programs were, and they were already starting to pull FIRST programs into their classrooms. They were starting to think about, how do I scale this? We recognize that if you’re from another sort of family, maybe you can’t stay after school for a program after school, maybe you’ve got a job after school, maybe you have to take care of your brother or sister after school, so we started thinking about how do we develop versions of the program that are easier to pull into the classroom, and to engage a much broader, a larger number, but a broader cross section of the kids.
Literally, about two years ago, starting with FIRST LEGO League Jr. and FIRST LEGO League, we started piloting and launching a version that’s actually available for teachers to bring into the classroom, they can do it with smaller teams of three, four, five kids, and actually run their own sort of mini competitions within the school. It’s kind of like if you think of our after-school programs as the interscholastic version, we’re kind of creating both the intramural, and the gym class version, to bring it into the school and expose more kids. I believe we’ll actually be formally launching that program at one of the education trade shows in April.
Mark: Yeah. This new intramural program, to take your analogy, versus the already known extramural… I’m delighted to hear that. In the end, that may be the winning piece.
Don: Yeah. I’m not much of an athlete, but I actually loved racquetball in gym class. I played in gym class. I was never good enough to be on the interscholastic varsity team, but I loved it, I enjoyed it, and it exposed me to it, and to this day I remember it. This new in school offering, and teachers could do it after school; they could do it in the classroom. We tried to make it easier for teachers to figure out how do I work this into my classroom and help them reach more kids with the program.
Mark: That’s great.
Don: The programs come with an administrators’ guide. Let’s say that multiple classrooms at a school are involved, and they want to put on their own, within school competition, or expo, the administrators guide will support them in that. There’s also a coaches’ guide, which we think of as curriculum to help guide the kids through the season. Every kid will get an engineering notebook which will support them starting to the vernacular of engineering and the experience of documenting their thinking, design, development processes.
We’ve also developed professional development for the teachers so they feel comfortable doing this without having to play the role for their students of ‘the answer book.’ With FIRST, they’re doing open-ended explorations, and there’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer involved. Their role is to guide students in that experience. About a year ago, we launched professional development for teachers to make them more comfortable leading that kind of discovery process.
Mark: To round out and finish this conversation, let me throw one or two other phrases at you.
Mark: I love what you shared with us from Dean that all kids, how did you put that? “All kids will be winners.”
Don: We say that, “In our competitions only one robot wins, but all the kids are winners.”
Mark: The other phrases, they’re not mine, they’re Dean’s, are: “gracious professionalism” and “cooper-tition”.
I bring these up because it’s easy to see that FIRST is all about some unique applications for classic STEM curriculum. But these phrases reveal that also FIRST strongly teaches what some would call soft curriculum, but really important life and career lessons.
Don: Yeah. When people say, “We’re a robotics program,” I like to point out that, “well, we use robotics as a way to engage the kids. But our programs are much more holistic,” and that’s what I think really differentiates FIRST. I always tell people, if you’re looking for just a robotics program, there’s other offerings out there.
Mark: True, there are a few well-known ones.
Don: Right. But what we’re really about is holistic child development, and creating leaders and great people, and so to us, while hard skills are important, the engineering, the math, the science, the mechanical building, the software they learn; it’s importantly also about the soft skills, the 21st century skills: teamwork, communication, collaboration, time management, project management—those are equally important, maybe more so. Again, I think corporations have gotten behind FIRST because when an employee enters the workforce now, those soft skills are so important.
I heard a great speech from a project manager at NASA about a month ago. He was speaking at a FIRST LEGO League North Carolina state championship, and he said, “I do a lot of hiring, I’m recruiting for NASA currently, I think of a kid as an iceberg: what I see above the water is the grades, the classes he took, the knowledge, he’s accumulated. But, what I can’t tell from his resume is: what’s below the water? What are his core values? What’s he like as a person?” That’s what you get out of the FIRST program: exposure to gracious professionalism. The ability to work on a team. The ability to lead. The ability to follow.
That’s what you get out of the FIRST program: exposure to gracious professionalism. The ability to work on a team. The ability to lead. The ability to follow.
Don: It’s these core values that are very much part of FIRST LEGO League and FIRST LEGO League Jr.: gracious professionalism and coopertition, the idea that yes, you are at your best when you compete against others who are at their best. When you talk to most parents whose kids have gone through a FIRST program, when you talk to most educators who have seen kids develop in the program, they’re always impressed at what they do technically, but I think it’s those core values that people are most impressed with and most appreciative of, and honestly really game-changing for the kids.
Mark: Yeah. In our society this is kind of unique – I love the sound of it and what it signifies, “gracious professionalism.” To lose well, and to learn from losing, and then go on to win later on; what a value that is!
Don: One of the really interesting parts about FIRST is failure isn’t often celebrated in the classroom.
Mark: Certainly not. Yeah.
Don: We even see now these helicopter parents who won’t let their kids fail. FIRST is actually the program where kids can learn how to fail, gracefully, and that’s a really important lesson. I mean, life is not always going to go your way no matter who you are, no matter how smart you are, no matter how great you are, you need to deal with setbacks, and challenges, and failure, and often times it’s how you do that, that distinguishes you as a human.
Don: I’ll tell you a great story… I was at a FIRST robotics event out recently near South Bend, Indiana. It was at Penn High School, an amazing school with amazing leadership that’s really embraced FIRST. This year they helped start a rookie team at the neighboring high school in Mishawaka, Indiana. And it was really funny because the folks at Mishawaka were like, “Wait a minute, these are two traditionally rival schools.” They’re in the same town—big cross-town rivals in every sport.
The people in Mishawaka were like, “Wait a minute, you’re telling us, you’re trying to help us start this team, and you’re going to coach and mentor us; you’ve got to be kidding. Right? You’re going to pull the rug out at some point, or something.” But we explained that, “No, that’s what FIRST is about.” It was awesome to see them. The teams had their pits next to each other. It was just really, really different for these two schools to be collaborating, to be supporting each other, to be cheering each other on.
Mark: That’s a great example. They’re not only there to compete, but they’re really all about supporting the greater effort, and winning that way. Excellent. How does all of this strike you, Victor?
Victor Rivero: I’ve been having the pleasure of listening to the different ideas that are bandied about here. One of the things that Mark has said in the past was that this kind of program is unique in that STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—and all of those letters actually are very well done in schools, except for the “E”. The “E” is the engineering, and this particular program really brings that out a lot more.
I really think that’s the practical side of this whole program. There’s a lot of theory, a lot of science appreciation, or math appreciation in schools, but there’s not really a practical side to all that theory or appreciation, or study. But FIRST offers real-world applications, where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. Which makes FIRST extremely valuable.
Don: Yeah. I’m glad you brought it up. In fact, it’s something I’ve been thinking about. As you commented, kids have science and math class pretty much K through 12. When you get to high school, maybe you have some technology; in middle to high school you have some technology classes. And, if you’re fortunate, maybe you have some engineering classes in your school. One question I like to ask when I’m giving a talk to a room full of adults is, “How many of you remember sitting in a math and science class saying, ‘When am I ever going to use this?’” Anybody who’s truthful raises his hand. Right? I mean, it happens to everybody.
Thinking about our traditional instruction for STEM, science and math are considered first.
Kids are taught them K-12. And then maybe they get exposed to the T (technology) and E (engineering). But I think if education thinks about flipping things around, expose kids to T and E early, which excites them, which gets them engaged, then the learning in science and math will come more naturally, because they’re more motivated to learn. They know why they want to know it. Right?
That’s really what FIRST does, it flips the order.
We give kids a really fun exciting engineering challenge. Kids like to create stuff that’s going to make the world a better place, or that’s going to do something, or that’s going to win something, or show off their capability. We find that if you offer the inspiration, and that tends to come more with the engineering, and the technology side then, I think, kids buy into it more. They feel, “Hey, it’s worth learning math and science, because I can do something with it!”
There are some leading schools today that are doing that. I just heard of a school district in Florida that just hired 30 engineering teachers for their elementary school, which I think is phenomenal. Somebody has finally figured it out. That’s why we think it’s so important that FIRST LEGO League Jr. and FIRST LEGO League get these kids excited about what they can do with math and science and get them inspired, because then they’re going to take harder classes, they’re going to be more engaged in school. The math and science learning is going to come much more naturally. I think that’s something that FIRST does, and I think schools are starting to catch on to that.
Mark: That’s very well said. The idea’s been around for a while, but of course whenever an educator falls in love with that idea, they kind of run into the brick wall of, “well, how do we do it?”
But FIRST, you’re all about that, your message to teachers is, “here’s how you do it, here’s a context, and a culture, and a methodology.” I would ask you about the A in STEAM, the arts, but I think the answer to that and you can tell me if I’m on the right track or not, is simply in how your team writes the annual challenge, or game, I think that’s what you call it.
Don: We actually make the arts part of what we do. Teams design t-shirts, create their own brands, do their own marketing, messaging. It’s about offering the most holistic program you can imagine, because we want there to be a place for every kid with any interest. Even if you want to be an accountant when you grow up, well, okay, run the budget for the team. There’s a role for you.”
It’s about offering the most holistic program you can imagine, because we want there to be a place for every kid with any interest.
We want kids to bling out their robot and be proud of that. It is very much part of the culture. I think what we realized is STEM is an area that it’s hard to get kids into, but we can use the arts as another on-ramp to say, “hey, if you’re interested in that, why don’t you get involved? Why don’t you bring that interest to a team? But while you’re there, why don’t you check out some of the other things you can do, and maybe expose yourself to other things that you don’t know about.”
Mark: Well said. You’ve got me, and I’m sure Victor, as well, excited about telling more of the FIRST story. That’s what we do.
Mark Gura is former Director of Instructional Technology for New York City Department of Education and the author of the book, “Getting Started with LEGO Robotics: A Guide for K-12 Educators” (ISTE). Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
UPCOMING – DON’T MISS IT!
An EdTech Digest special interview series featuring Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST, in which he discusses its origins and where he sees things now and going forward, from his unique point of view on the 30th anniversary (1989-2019) of the program. Watch for it coming soon on www.edtechdigest.com
For an informational PDF with Frequently Asked Questions about the FIRST program, click here.
For more information and details about the four international programs FIRST offers (grades K-12), visit www.firstinspires.org.