Observer’s Notebook: Robots And USFIRST

ST. LOUIS — Every once in a while, technology translation sways human. This is one of those times. I’m just back from my first USFIRST championship, held here April 26-28.

What a scene! Picture the Edward Jones Dome teeming with 10,000 high-energy teenagers, in tutus and capes and crazy hats. And their robots (2,500-plus of them). And another 15,000 or so deafening fans.

FIRST spells “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” Haven’t heard of it? I hadn’t either, until last year’s SCTE Cable-Tec Expo, when FIRST founder Dean Kamen spoke during the opening general session.

Within FIRST, Kamen is beloved and revered. In St. Louis, wearing his signature blue jeans and blue shirt, 25,000 teenagers roared with excitement when he took the “Einstein” stage, then listened in rapt silence as he addressed them.

Here’s a short list of Kamen’s inventions: The Segway, the insulin pump, an all-terrain wheelchair and a compressed air gizmo that could shoot a first responder to the top of a building.

Happily, cable is aiming its energy and engineering resources at FIRST, too. Among the opening ceremony speakers: Ellen East, executive VP and chief communications officer at Time Warner Cable, and Sherita Ceasar, Comcast VP, national video deployment engineering, who bestowed the first Media & Technology award to a very excited Team Pantera, No. 2283, from Mexico City.

Other cable muckety-mucks spied in the robot pits: Daniel Howard, CTO of the Society of Cable & Telecommunications Engineers; and, from the Time Warner Cable engineering braintrust, Mike LaJoie (CTO), Jim Braun (senior VP of product management) and Matt Zelesko (senior VP of web services and technology).

TWC dispatched a bucket truck (with a robot, “Pledgy,” in the bucket) and its “Connect One Million Minds” mission, which encourages young people to pledge their commitment to science, technology, engineering and math (which goes by “STEM” in the lingo).

Comcast sponsored 50 robotics teams across the country this year, up from a dozen last year. Its technical ranks served as mentors to each team.

Over the course of the weekend, I met 10 teams — great kids, like Megan Barrett of Team 4585, who said things like this: “We want to make sure everyone understands math and science, and how important it is to changing the world.”

And this: “I love the intuitiveness of engineering, and that you go from a piece of paper to something tangible within six or seven weeks.” — Jeremy Sayers, “Tough Techs,” Team 151.

My personal favorite: “I’ve always liked the sciences, because everything makes sense, except the stuff that doesn’t make sense. And you can figure that out later.” — Stanley Umeweni, “Robolancers” Team 321.

Here’s what happens: Three big areas — designated “Einstein,” “Archimedes” and “Newton” — run back-toback, three-minute competitions amongst the robots. Individual teams are randomly grouped in alliances of three — three red, three blue.

Using the 120-pound robot they built after Kamen released this year’s challenge in January, the kids compete to throw flying discs into targets, and to climb a metal pyramid. (Seeing a robot climb to the top was surprisingly exhilarating.)

All the while, the stands regularly erupt in cheers, songs, and dances. Teenagers holler “robot!” when rolling their invention to and from matches. The smell of funnel cake and popcorn wafts, along with WD-40 and engine grease.

What I like the most about FIRST (besides everything): Its highest award is for “Gracious Professionalism,” defined as follows: “Fierce competition and mutual gain are not separate notions. Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy, but treat one another with respect and kindness in the process. They avoid treating anyone like losers. No chest-thumping tough talk, but no sticky-sweet platitudes, either. Knowledge, competition and empathy are comfortably blended.”

Wouldn’t it be great if we all lived and worked that way? Wouldn’t it be great if we aligned to make a Cable FIRST mission?

I’m in.

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