By Kris Seluga
For the last six years, Milford Robotics, a part of the Milford Education Foundation, has been creating opportunities for students to participate in FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics programs where they design, build and compete with robots in a sports-like team format. But the real secret of FIRST is that it’s not about the robots. As FIRST founder Dean Kamen says, “FIRST is more than robots. The robots are a vehicle for students to learn important life skills. They leave, even after the first season, with a vision, with confidence, and with a sense that they can create their own future.” That’s exactly what we’ve found here in our own program in Milford. While students may first be attracted to the program because they want to play with robots or learn to program, they quickly learn how to do research, problem solve, present their ideas to an audience and most importantly, work in a team with their peers. The mission of FIRST® is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills; that inspire innovation; and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.
Milford Robotics started by creating teams of elementary and middle school students to compete in the FIRST Lego League (FLL) where teams of up to 10 students from grades 4 through 8 build and program small robots using the Lego Mindstorms robotic system. FLL students also practice teamwork exercises and research and present a solution to a societal problem of their choosing within the annual theme of the challenge. In the span of a few short months of the FLL season, students make amazing strides with improved confidence, perseverance with problem solving, teamwork and public speaking. At the end of each season FLL teams attend a robotics tournament with teams from around Connecticut where they get the opportunity to show off their work, compete in the robot game and present their research ideas to judges.
Now that the students from our original FLL team are in High School, Milford Robotics has started a High School level FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team (Milford MOJO, team #8085) composed of students from Joseph Foran and Jonathan Law and open to all Milford High School students.As part of the FRC program, students learn to design, build, and program a 125 pound robot from scratch to accomplish the unique tasks for that year’s robot game.Beyond that, team members manage team finances (typical team budgets are on the order of $15,000 per year), coordinate fundraising efforts, produce team videos and promotional materials and perform community service and outreach to inspire others to pursue their interests in STEM fields.Each FIRST Robotics Competition robot build season culminates with district and regional events where qualifying teams compete for awards and a spot at the FIRST world championship. The positive impact on FIRST Robotics Competition participants is gratifying and well documented.Over 88% have more interest in doing well in school and 92% are more interested in attending college.In addition, High School level FIRST Participants become FIRST Alumni and gain access to exclusive education funding as part of the FIRST Scholarship Program.
In Milford Robotics’ first FRC season, our FLL alumni continue to build important skills and relationships and for those students who are new to FIRST, there is a clear positive impact. As just a few examples, team MOJO students have said: “Before this year I wasn't really part of any extracurricular because I thought it would be a waste of time or would interfere with school, but starting FRC really showed me what it was like to be part of a team and to be committed to your peers.” and “Being a member of the Robotics team has truly helped me open up to those around me. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities that have been made accessible to me by joining this team, as well as how I have the chance to work with so many of my peers!”
Before our rookie season was cut short by the Covid-19 emergency, team MOJO was fortunate to compete at the Waterbury FRC qualifier event where the team impressed judges and veteran teams alike with its professionalism, enthusiasm and embodiment of the FIRST spirit. At Waterbury team MOJO came home with the Rookie All-Star award. On top of that, the team’s robot was ranked 3rd overall and finished as the captain of the 2nd place playoff alliance. More importantly, in the true spirit of FIRST the team’s efforts did not stop with the suspension of the FRC season. The team continues to meet virtually to work on fundraising, team marketing and planning for next year. In addition, team MOJO has put its 3D printing skills to work to produce and donate PPE equipment to local hospitals in need.