“FIRST teams run like small companies. FIRST gives students the chance to apply the theories they learn in school in a fun venue." —Chuck Hurwitz, science-department head, Newton South High School
A school district in Newton, MA, is inspiring tomorrow’s engineers and product designers by helping them build robots in their spare time
About four years ago in Newton, MA, local mother Robin Saitz became a believer in the FIRST Robotics program. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen as a way to “inspire young people to be science and technology leaders.” As part of the program, high school students build robots that compete in regional and national tournaments.
Saitz, a marketing VP at PLM software provider PTC, asked Chuck Hurwitz, head of the science department at her hometown’s Newton South High School, whether students there and at Newton North High School might want to participate.
Hurwitz hung posters at both schools, and soon had a half-dozen students and two teachers on board. The makeshift team knew little about building a robot,
and had only four weeks to do so.
“Four weeks later, the students had solved the problem,” Hurwitz says. “The robot worked. They went and competed and had a really good time.”
And the experience stretched beyond machine-building. “FIRST teams run like small companies,” he explains. “Students are in charge of fund-raising, manufacturing, and all business problems. FIRST gives students the chance to apply the theories they learn in school in a fun venue.”
The team became known as the Ligerbots. Ruth Allard, a junior at Newton South and CFO of the team, illustrates the program’s appeal. Prior to her freshman year, Allard heard about the FIRST program from her father, an MIT engineer who had mentored FIRST teams.
“He wanted me to join,” Allard says, “and I did not want to at all. I was starting high school; I wanted to be cool.”
Grudgingly, she signed on as the Ligerbots’ photographer. “I did not think I was going to be an engineer,” she says. “My dad’s an engineer.”
After the early meetings, though, Ruth found her resolve slipping. “By the time build season came, I’d probably worked on that robot for hundreds of hours,” she says, laughing. “It was amazing.”
With PTC’s sponsorship and an in-kind donation of its CAD and PLM software, the Ligerbots have since flourished, fielding teams as large as 60 students in recent years.
“I watch the students on those teams grow and become adults in their decision-making,” Hurwitz says. “It is an incredible transformation.”