Technologist’s Notebook: My First FIRST

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Technologist’s Notebook: My First FIRST


By John Schanz, EVP and Chief Network Officer, Comcast Cable in Community Investment

Friday, May 1, 2015 - 9:00am

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend an entire day surrounded by nearly 18,000 teenagers – and their robots. The occasion was the 23rd annual FIRST Robotics Championship in St. Louis, which capped the most recent season of FIRST programs all over the world.

For several years now, Comcast NBCUniversal has strongly supported FIRST, pledging our resources, funding, talent and time to assist robotics teams across the United States. I have personally championed FIRST, locally and nationally, with a goal of fueling interest in science, engineering, technology and math, and helping to build a pipeline of future engineers and technologists both for Comcast NBCUniversal, and the country.

Here’s how the program works: Participating school robotics teams – the competitors are ages 6 to 18 – receive a box of parts and are asked to use those parts to construct a washing machine-sized working robot to solve a specific challenge – and all within six weeks. This year, the challenge was called "Recycle Rush" and involved robots stacking recycling containers and disposing of trash.

The beauty of FIRST Robotics is how the challenges so closely resemble the realities of technological innovation today, from developing and testing solutions over a short period of time, to the need to learn, adapt and work with others.

To the teens, it’s like a puzzle. To me, it was seeing people 30+ years younger than me applying what I’d call advanced mesh problem solving. These young people are thriving in the kinds of collaboration that builds technical, interpersonal, and life skills. Working seamlessly with other teams on their alliances and even across competing teams, they cheerfully come together to solve problems.

Along the way, they’re guided by FIRST axioms like "gracious professionalism," and I witnessed this incredible spirit of cooperation and shared learning firsthand as teams exchanged parts and ideas openly with competing teams.

From an experiential perspective, these kids have to be lean and agile and collaborative – all characteristics of the technologists and developers and engineers we hire.

While wandering the areas of the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, I noticed that the play and pit areas were named after famous scientists including Einstein, Archimedes, Newton – and also Curie (as in Marie Curie, the FIRST woman to win a Nobel Prize).

Standing by the Curie area, I smiled from the inside out knowing that this year’s Media & Technology Innovation Award, sponsored by Comcast NBCUniversal, was presented to an all-girls team from Pittsburgh, Pa. Named "Girls of Steel," (FRC Team 3504) these future female technologists really embraced the competition by developing a "digital life" that is unique, powerful, navigable and compelling. Don’t take my word for it – check it out for yourself.

As a left-brained engineer who invariably tries to find exact and accurate ways to characterize my thoughts, all I can say after witnessing 900 teams from 40 countries compete in the FIRST Robotics Championship is WOW. Just WOW.

I can’t end this without an appreciative nod to my friend and colleague and the founder of FIRST, Dean Kamen, and his attentive, friendly, wonderful staff. My first FIRST was quite an indoctrination and I’m officially looking forward to next year!

This article first appeared on Comcast Voices, a place for conversations with Comcast. Read more blogs about our impact in the community here.

Keywords: Technology | Community Investment | FIRST Robotics Championship | comcast