Growing a new generation of engineers with a robot ruckus
By Aimee Riordan | April 10, 2014

What do you get when you combine life-size robots, giant rubber balls, alliances vying for victory and a bunch of rowdy teenagers? Mayhem, of course.

You also get a FIRST Robotics competition that took place recently at Glacier Peak High School in Snohomish, Wash. “On the Whiteboard” Editor Pamela Woon was there to catch all of the robot ruckus, shown in the above video.

FIRST is a national nonprofit that encourages high school students to grow their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) know-how by trying their hand at building robots. Approximately 20 Microsoft employees volunteer as mentors for local teams.

Each team has six weeks to construct machines to perform a specific task, which changes every year. This year, they built 120-pound robots that could: pick up, pass and shoot a 2-foot exercise ball over a truss and into a goal 8-feet high.

Part basketball game, part rock concert and a little bit NASCAR, this is probably the opposite of what comes to mind when you think “computer geek.” These kids are pumped. They’re proud. Yet, they’re getting a head start in engineering and computer science.

In the “pit” team xbot members race to fix their robot before the competition.
Bruce Wittenmyer
In the “pit” team xbot members race to fix their robot before the competition.

“The competitions have some of the most energy of anywhere I’ve been,” says Aaron Schmitz, a mechanical engineer working at Microsoft on Xbox sensors in the Devices and Studios Group. “The kids are so excited about watching their robots compete, which is funny. I’m not used to watching kids getting excited about education.”

Schmitz himself is only 20. A Minnesota native, he grew up building robots for FIRST competitions. Today, he not only works at Microsoft, he’s also a mentor for team xbot, which pulls students from South Seattle’s Franklin High School to compete in FIRST tournaments.

The students meet in Building 99 at Microsoft’s Redmond campus Tuesday and Thursday nights, and Saturdays during the season, which runs from January to April. Most carpool with mentors. Robot building during the evening sessions is typically hashed out over dinner.

Schmitz, who also mentored a FIRST team in his hometown before moving west, says this group is different from the one he worked with before. Eighty percent of the students at Franklin qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.

“The students I worked with in Minnesota were looking for another line item on their resume,” he explains. “Our xbot students are from a low-income area of Seattle. We’re encouraging them to major in engineering when they might not have otherwise gone to college.”

Schmitz graduated high school having already completed two years of college credits. FIRST gave him the practical, hands-on engineering experience essential to landing his job at Microsoft. He says watching competitions, like the one at Glacier Peak, shines a whole new light on what young engineers are really like. They’re loud. They’re fun. And they can cheer with the best of ‘um.

Tom Blank, a hardware engineering manager at Microsoft Research and another mentor for team xbot, agrees. “It would be like people dancing at a chess match. How many times do you see that? That’s absolutely part of the magic here. Not everyone is an athlete. Not everyone gets to do that. Literally, the gear heads, the geeks, the misfits have an outlet here.”

Two members of team xbot take their robot onto the game field.
Bruce Wittenmyer
Two members of team xbot take their robot onto the game field.

While FIRST is about competition, it’s also about cooperation. “Gracious professionalism” is the core value. Victory is based on the performance of your robot, but also how you cooperate with other alliance members and how much community outreach your team has done.

“We try to engineer the best learning experience,” Blank says. “We have a mantra over here: Fail and fail fast. Give it your best shot. Try it. If it doesn’t work, retry with the knowledge that you’ve gained. Keep iterating until you find a solution.”

Many of the students who join team xbot come with little or no engineering or computer science experience. “They don’t know which end of the soldering gun to hold,” Blank says. Many of them come because a friend brings them along, or because dinner is provided.

Building the robots and participating in the competition helps students understand the value behind science and math. It gives their classwork meaning. It also gives them a head start. Blank says xbot alum often go on to electronics labs in college and “smoke everyone else in terms of the quality of their effort.”

Xbot mentor Troy Barnes says the program provides a way to reach kids who would otherwise spend the evenings and weekends on their phones. “Robotics is something active they can do.”

This year’s challenge: Shoot a 2-foot exercise ball over a truss and into an 8-foot high goal.
Bruce Wittenmyer
This year’s challenge: Shoot a 2-foot exercise ball over a truss and into an 8-foot high goal.

Barnes’ day job is a software design engineer in test for Microsoft’s Operating Systems Group. His team ended up coming from behind to win the Glacier Peak competition.

Initially, they placed 22nd out of 32 teams. Their robot had racked up a number of fouls and penalties. But they formed an alliance with a higher-ranked team and in cooperation, beat everyone else.

“It just goes to show, it’s not always about how well you do on your individual robot, but also how well you collaborate with other teams,” Barnes says. “It was exciting how it all worked out.”

His team advanced to the Pacific Northwest Regional Championship, held Thursday in Portland, Ore.

For Dan Rosenstein, FIRST is an extended part of his family. He’s a mentor for the Issaquah Robotics Society and a lead program manager in Microsoft’s Operating Systems Group.

The team is about the students and the mentor’s role is to guide them, he says. Their bond is forged over countless shared meals and robot building sessions.

Team xbot’s captain adjusts their robot’s catapult to correct a shooting error.
Bruce Wittenmyer
Team xbot’s captain adjusts their robot’s catapult to correct a shooting error.

During the season, Rosenstein will often spend more dinners eating with his team than he does his own family. A trade-off, yes. But a worthwhile investment. He hopes his daughters Ally, 5, and Haley, 2, will participate in FIRST when they’re old enough to join a team of their own.

Microsoft donates $17 an hour for his charitable mentoring time to Issaquah Robotics Society as part of its Corporate Citizenship program. “I have volunteered 350-plus hours this year, which becomes a considerable value-add to the team,” Rosenstein says.

Schmitz, too, is hooked. He notes that most people who build robots or mentor students on teams like xbot stay involved for a long time. He knows two former FIRST participants who are now married, and they continue to help inspire the next generation of engineers.

“I will continue to mentor for the indefinite future,” he says. “There is no exit strategy.”

For information about how you can contribute, check out xbot robotics’ donation page. You can also learn how to get involved at FIRST’s Volunteer page.