by:  Ian J. Frank FIRST Robotics Competition Mentor, and, oh yeah,  Mechanical Design Engineer for Solid Ink Product Development

Imagine for a moment that you had to complete a full scale engineering project in only six weeks.  Now imagine that you successfully launched this project after six weeks and that your team could be highly recognized by a global organization in the process. Sounds pretty awesome, right?

Welcome to the FIRST Robotics Competition! Students from around the world design, build, and launch a 120 lb, multi-function robot in six weeks.  Teams then compete at highly charged regional competitions around the world.  If they qualify at these regionals, they travel to St. Louis to compete with the other qualifying teams in the world championship.

Xerox FIRST Robotics Competition Team, Wilsonville, OR

Over the past two years I have had the pleasure of being a mentor for FRC Team 1425 – “Error Code Xero” – from Wilsonville, Oregon.  Last week I watched with pride as the team rose from the bitter defeat of their 2010 season to take second place in the Seattle Olympic Regional, and today they did it again at the Autodesk Oregon Regional.  Perhaps our team truly is “on fire,” as our flame motif would suggest!

Starting January fifteenth our team of 41 students and 25 volunteer mentors designed and built the robot that helped the team come this far.  The determination to improve over last year was tangible in the air throughout the build season and surged to full tilt upon our arrival in Seattle.  Watching the contagious excitement of our students reminds me that, as a young engineer, this is the most gratifying thing that I do! Through the FIRST program I have the opportunity to help educate a whole new generation of engineers.

While doing well in our competitions is a big part of what we aim to accomplish, it is not the whole picture.  We were a bit bummed about nearly winning our way to the World Championship and falling just short two weeks in a row, but the attitude changed completely when one of my fellow mentors was awarded the Woodie Flowers Award for outstanding mentorship.  Watching one of our own be honored for his incredible contributions to the team made it all worth it.  This feeling was further amplified when the team was awarded the Engineering Inspiration Award (which sends us to the FIRST World Championship!), an award that recognizes a team’s excellence not just in competition but in all aspects of their design, attitude, community involvement, and team mission.  It reminded us all that FIRST is about so much more than building robots.  We are building people of all disciplines and influencing the future – a fact that we all needed to be reminded of.

On to St. Louis!

~Ian