On a warm, sunny weekend in March in Athens, Georgia, hundreds of kids were giving it their all on the field while parents and other supporters cheered them on. But the field wasn’t an athletic field, and the teens weren’t playing sports. They were competing in a battle of the minds — not mano a mano but robot a robot — as part of the South Super-Regional Championship of the FIRST Robotics Competition, sponsored in part by Southern Company.
They are the workers of tomorrow, who may one day help Southern Company build the future of energy.
FIRST aims to make smart cool. “We call ourselves the Super Bowl of smarts,” said Connie Haynes, executive director of GeorgiaFIRST Robotics.
Here’s how the FIRST Robotics Competition works: Every year, when the challenge is announced, a kit of parts is released to each team. “There are zero instructions,” said Haynes. “You see what this year’s challenge is and your team has to strategize, build, fabricate and bring to the competition a competitive robot” — all in just six weeks.
The challenge changes each year. Steven Hovey, event director for the South Super-Regional, explained, “Sometimes [the robots] need to throw balls at something, sometimes they need to roll them into something, other times they even have robots that need to grab onto something and climb up.”
Each season begins with local events and culminates with district and regional competitions, where qualifying teams vie for awards and a spot at the First Championship. The South Super-Regional tournament featured 72 teams from 11 southern states, some of them sponsored by Southern Company’s electric operating companies.
An outsize challenge
The challenge is designed to be just a bit too hard for kids to meet on their own.
“We make this just a level up in terms of complexity because we know the value of mentor based programs,” said Haynes. “When our country was coming into being, you learned from the master, and that inspired someone to continue that trade.”
Mentors for the southern teams include parents, teachers and volunteers from Georgia Power (a subsidiary of Southern Company) and other companies. They meet with their teams three or four times a week after school. “We call them the champions because without the champions, the team doesn’t exist,” said Haynes. Most teams average about three mentors.
For most teams, finding these mentors is actually part of the competition. “Part of being on the FIRST team is going out and being able to tell someone, ‘this is who we are, this is why you should choose us, and this is what’s in it for you as a potential mentor or sponsor,’” said Haynes.
For the corporate mentors, it’s not just about giving back — it’s also about identifying future talent. “You’re getting a pretty good handle on who will be good future employees. Kind of like athletic draft, if you will,” said Haynes.
Grooming kids for the jobs of tomorrow
A full 60 percent of all jobs by 2020 will require some level of computer science knowledge, said Haynes. To get kids ready for the jobs of tomorrow, getting them interested in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — is essential.
“STEM is really critical, not only for the state of Georgia, not only for the Southeast, but really our country. When you look at the forecasting, when you look at the future, those are the kind of skill sets that we need our kids to be having to be competitive in the future workforce.”
Yet if kids aren’t introduced to STEM in a fun way early on, they may never become converts. “It’s imperative that we introduce kids at an early age to the possibilities in the areas of science and math. If we don’t, then we lose them, especially the girls.”
FIRST programs target kids as young as 5. When the youngsters become involved in one of them, “kids don’t have to hide that fact that that they’re interested in STEM, and they get a peer group to belong to,” said Haynes.
One of the things the programs do is take the “scary” out of STEM. “One of the reasons why Southern Company and Georgia Power have really gotten behind FIRST is because they are removing the scary mystique around STEM and around robotics and around engineering,” said Perez. “To some kids, those are going to be scary words. [They think] ‘I’m not smart enough to do that. Nobody in my family does that.’ But all it takes is one little bit of exposure.”
For Southern Company, developing a future talent pool is critical. Perez explained, “When you’re talking about solar panels and the grid, battery storage, electric vehicles — all of these things are the future of energy, so we feel like it’s really important to find those programs that are helping kids really think critically and solve problems.”
While FIRST exists to get young students interested in STEM, other skills, such as marketing communications, fundraising and videography, play a role in a team’s success. This helps ensure the competition draws different types of kids, all of whom need to learn to work together to achieve their goal.
Teams are judged not only on how well their robots complete the challenge but also on factors such as community outreach and engagement activities, and awards are given for various accomplishments, including promotion.
Corporate sponsorship is key
Corporate America is critical to FIRST. “Us being a nonprofit,” said Haynes, “we never want it to be a cost to a study or school. How we’re able to achieve that is by companies like Southern Company saying, ‘this is worth the investment for our youth.’ If they didn’t invest, you wouldn’t see things like the South Super-Regional happening. You wouldn’t see the 72 teams even in existence.”
Haynes said FIRST is a good equalizer thanks to Corporate America, which also helps provide FIRST participants scholarships.
“If Corporate America’s not there, it’s another program that’s left to the ones that can afford it.”
Technical help from Georgia Power
For the first time ever, this year the South Super-Regional featured a mobile machine shop, a large pull-behind trailer where kids could bring malfunctioning robots for repairs, courtesy of Georgia Power.
“It took it up to another level,” said Haynes. The students “were thrilled to have a service like that offered to them.” Just about anything they needed for robot repair — from a band saw and grinder to nuts and bolts to a full array of tools including wrenches and drills — the kids could find there.
Southern Company and Georgia Power also contributed to funding the Robot Doctor station, a space where students could source spare parts, ask for advice, fix their robots or borrow more basic tools. “The robot doc is there to support every item that came in the parts kit for those teams,” said Haynes.
Getting inspired — and being inspiring
The thrill of competition at the South Super-Regional was palpable. “When you come here and you look at these kids who are 14, 15 to 18 years old, you’re just inspired. Their excitement, their enthusiasm, it’s just contagious. It’s amazing,” said Perez.
Encouraging that kind of excitement is a primary goal for Southern Company. “For us, it’s much bigger than writing a check and putting our name on something. It’s really about showing these kids that we’re excited about what they’re doing, we believe in what they’re doing, and that they’re the kind of kids we want to hire into out future workforce,” said Perez.
Winning teams from the South and West Super-Regionals advanced to the world championship, which took place in late April. But in many senses, every kid who made it to Super-Regional level won. Said Perez, “These kids accomplished something big, even if they don’t walk away from here a winner.”