Lego, First, and Why it All Happens

Last night, I was doing homework when my dad walked into my room and handed me a 5 month old Smithsonian magazine, saying I should read it because it had to do with robotics. I instantly noticed the cover which had a picture of EV3 (the next generation of MINDSTORMS brick) and the cover title “BLOCK PARTY”. The title is significant because it is the current game name for FTC, and I was hoping that the article discussed FIRST Tech Challenge and all we’re doing. Unfortunately, the article was written many months before our game was released and the title was actually referring to the FIRST competition at worlds in St. Louis where Jr. FLL, FLL, FTC, and FRC all compete within a three day period. This event is sometimes given the nickname “Block Party” because Jr. FLL, FLL, and FTC all use Lego parts and the MINDSTORMS motors in competition. However, it did talk about the FIRST program and its overall goals and impact.
The article was not only informative, but it reminded me why I like robotics so much. I think I hold a bit of pride in the fact that I’m a part of all of this. Despite the fact that it’s not televised nearly as much as the average high school football game (nor is it always given as much merit), I love the fact that what I’m doing in FTC may one day lead me to my career.
The article leaned towards the Lego side of engineering and creation, only popping back to FIRST when it became relevant. But it is true the Lego is instrumental in the FIRST program. After all, the youth of FIRST are trained on Lego robots, and Legos themselves are nothing more than the building blocks of engineering. They start as mere pieces, but Legos can build just about anything as the article proves – “the world’s largest Lego bridge (122 feet), the world’s longest Lego train track (4,923 feet), and the world’s tallest Lego tower (106 feet, seven inches; 450,000 bricks).” Some have aspired to even greater (assumedly without success) “It would take 40 billion eight-stud Lego bricks to build a stack to the moon”.
The article goes on to tell about how Lego actually faced a possible bankruptcy in 2004, and the prevention of this forced Lego to cut back on many divisions and can some entirely. One division that survived, and may arguably be the flagship of the Lego fleet, was indeed MINDSTORMS. Given that FIRST has based two of its competitions entirely on Legos and MINDSTORMS, and the third is highly dependent on the later, it is not hard to see that MINSTORMS has been quite the success for Lego. “The relationship between MINSTORMS and its fan base has always been symbiotic.” In fact, internet hackers have been so influential in the development of higher performing bricks that MINSTORMS has it written in their software license “right to hack”. Yes it seems that Lego, much like FIRST, prospers on creativity.
The final page of the article talks about how FIRST and other STEM programs are trying to understand why they’re losing membership of kids as they transition from 4th to 12th grade. The statistics they show aren’t entirely surprising if you’re one to consider stereotypes. Personally, I feel that the answer they’re looking for is sadly simple; kids change their minds. After all, in fourth grade, the idea of making a Lego robot move across a field, perform some task, and come back, is relatively entertaining. But as kids transition from the elementary years, into middle school and high school, they start to consider other priorities. Maybe they get more involved in sports, or they discover that they aren’t as interested in robotics as they thought; maybe they get a job and can’t find the time, or maybe they join show choir in order to have more time talking to a girl they like. Either way, I’m not convinced that it’s an issue of First but of the nature of young people in general. Of course, it is sometimes the case that the school they advance into is not supportive of FIRST, and this is certainly part of the issue, but I feel that FIRST is in no way in any sort of regression; but rather basking in the golden sunlight of success and growth.

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