FIRST Robotics Robots Inspire the Next Generation of Scientists

Kevin and his daughters Kevin and Alice.As a member of LECO’s software R & D team, Kevin Russell works alongside talented engineers and scientists every day. But outside of LECO, you’ll often find him spending time with another group of innovative thinkers—the high school students he mentors as part of the FIRST Robotics Competition.

The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition is an annual challenge designed to help students discover the excitement of science, technology, engineering, and math. Kevin is one of 12 mentors for team 2959, called the CW-Tech Robotarians (www.cwtechrobotarians.org), which is made up of about 35 students from six area high schools: Coloma, Watervliet, Lake Michigan Catholic, Grace Christian, Michigan Lutheran, and Eau Claire. Among the team’s members are Kevin’s daughters, Alice and Jessica, who attend Lake Michigan Catholic High School.

When most people hear about the FIRST Robotics Competition, they might immediately picture the actual competition element of the program. In this year’s competition, for instance, students participated in a challenge in which their robots were evaluated on throwing Frisbees and climbing pyramids on the playing field. But there’s so much more that happens behind the scenes.

“At the competition, it’s not only competing with your robot, but explaining how you built it,” Kevin said. “You see them learning a lot more than just robots. A lot of kids have been inspired—it can create a passion.”

Prior to the competition, students spend a grueling six weeks designing, building, programming, and testing their robots. Participants also learn to run the team like a business by developing marketing materials, raising funds to cover costs, and managing safety issues. While mentors like Kevin are available to lend support, it’s up to the participants to apply their skills to the project.

“I’ve enjoyed the teaching aspect of helping the kids learn the software and control side,” Kevin said. “Some of the kids are brand-new to it, some are more experienced, but it’s always the kids doing the work.”

Their hard work paid off. The CW-Tech Robotarians had a successful season, earning recognition in areas such as quality, safety, and innovation. Their alliance even took home top honors at the district competition, which was held for the first time in St. Joseph. The team qualified for the international competition in St. Louis, where they earned a medal as finalists in their field and had a chance to meet competitors from not just FIRST Robotics, but also FIRST Tech Challenge (seventh- and eighth-grade) and FIRST Lego League (fourth- to sixth-grade).

“The kids met teams from across the US and the world as they checked out all the activity in the pits,” Kevin said. “My daughters got the biggest kick out of cruising the FIRST Lego League pits and talking with the younger kids, many who were from outside the US.”

(This article was originally posted in Leco’s newsletter and was printed with permission.

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