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Who’s on FIRST? It’s nerds versus geeks at varsity sport for the mind

Walking into the Matthaei Field House on the campus of Wayne State University I quickly realized I was watching some of the most energized and talented high school competition I had ever seen – and I’ve been around for a long time.  I watched NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino play high school football in the 70s against my younger brother.  The energy of the Michigan FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) fans at the district finals was every bit as rabid and hard core as the football crazy fans who followed Danny around more than four decades ago.

The truly unique aspect of the FIRST is it’s a one-of-a-kind, “hybrid” high school activity that compares to nothing I’ve ever seen in all of my years as a high school sports-junky. Call it what you want – “Geeks vs. Nerds” or “Varsity Sports 4 the Mind” – the FRC is a little bit of all these things and it’s worth seeing. The competition is free and open to the public.

The Wayne State field house was packed with family, friends, fellow students and mentors.  They watched and cheered as hundreds of high school Einsteins and young Steve Jobs used remote control devices to make their motorized Erector Set-like R2D2’s run around a make-shift basketball court and shoot mini-basketballs at multiple baskets. If that’s not hard enough they have to balance these 100+ lb. robots on a makeshift teeter-totter at different spots on the court.

This year’s “Rebound Rumble” matches were a little bit of NASCAR with pit crews, technicians and a garage area along with qualifier rounds.  It was a little bit of March Madness with stripped-shirted referees, scoring tables, judges, basketballs and four baskets to shoot at, not just one. It was also a little bit techno music festival with electronic entertainment courtesy of DJ Daveyboy Wonder. Mix this all together and you have a very healthy blend of crazy-serious entertainment, exhaustive and fun cheerleading and totally-controlled mayhem with several dozen basketball shooting robots … no two of which are identical.

While the kids love the chance to show off their knowledge and skills and represent their high school and yes, get a varsity jacket,  the smart universities like Wayne State see this as a great recruiting opportunity to attract the next generation of innovators and engineers.  Students who are part of the FRC are eligible to apply for some serious corporate and university support to the tune of $14.5 million in scholarships.

At the core of the competition is robotics, which gives these young people a taste for a career in technology. The program’s objective is to develop a home-grown talent pool of future engineers and technologist.  Corporations and universities are working together to offer engineering internships. The FIRST in Michigan organization is committed to helping them discover and develop a true passion for technology and engineering – and they make it fun.

The Michigan FRC program is divided into 16 districts. Each FRC team participates in two qualifying tournaments. Following the statewide district events, the teams are ranked. The top 64 move on to a state championship. The top 18 teams from the state championship qualify for the FRC World Championships, which will be held in St. Louis April 25-28.

FRC is becoming more mainstream thanks to volunteer organizations and professional engineering mentors who help the teams throughout the design, build and test phases leading up to the actual competition. Without the organization’s core group of professional technologists and engineer mentors, the competition would not be as successful.  So if you know anyone who would be interested in learning more about FIRST in Michigan and becoming a mentor have them check out the program’s website.

The Michigan FRC Events calendar lists two remaining district tournaments in Troy and Livonia just prior to the state championship, which will be held April 12-14 at Eastern Michigan University.  If you’re interested in watching young kids have at it in friendly, but certainly enthusiastic competition where science and technology are celebrated, you need to get off the couch and take in the action.  I guarantee you’ll enjoy the experience – and it’s free.

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