For four years I was a part of the FIRST Robotics community in Seattle and the greater Pacific Northwest, so it was only logical that I seek out the FIRST family in Colorado. In the fall I volunteered as a judge at the FIRST Lego League competition and this past weekend I was a judge at the Colorado Regional competition, which brings together high school teams from Colorado, Wyoming, and some from Texas, New Mexico and Nevada.
It was a bittersweet experience for me because I found myself wistfully glancing up at the stands looking for the many friends I’d made in the Pacific Northwest. It seemed so natural that I should find them there, but they weren’t there. The same thing happened in the pits as I tried to find familiar teams. Memory and the brain will always try to reach for what’s familiar when in a situation that has the look and feel of past experiences, yet is different.
The other bittersweet part of this weekend was realizing that there are fewer resources available to the teams here, from training to funds/sponsors to opportunities. The difference between more affluent school districts and small rural ones was greater than I’d encountered in Washington. These difference also drive future opportunities for the kids on these teams. In Washington around 90% of kids on FIRST robotics teams will go to college, here I’ve found that number to be lower.
The cultural and socio-economic differences between the coastal states and the heartland states was made real for me this weekend. On an intellectual level, I understood, but on an emotional level it’s a different experience which added new depth to my understanding. As well as reaffirming my desire to help where I can. To provide encouragement and support to kids who have a tougher climb than others.
Before you think it was a depressing weekend for me, let me assure you it was not. I was truly, deeply inspired by what the kids on these teams accomplished. It’s no small feat for teenagers to build and program a robot from scratch to meet specific requirements in only six weeks. Just as it never ceases to inspire me to hear them speaking eloquently and passionately about their team, overcoming challenges, helping others (one of the tenets of FIRST is Gracious Professionalism), finding ways to raise the money to do this, and most of all hearing them talk about their goals for the future.
If these kids can carry the lessons they learn on their robotics teams forward throughout life, they will do well at whatever they choose to do with the opportunities they have. They have the skills to break down a problem, to figure out solutions, to reach out to others for help, and to pay it forward.