By Scott Meacham
Copyright © 2014, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
Xavier Zwirtz first got into robots at a 4-H meeting.
At the time, he was an Oklahoma teenager and interested in video games. He readily admits that all the talk about horseback riding and leather making made him think he was in the wrong place. But then the 4-H leader passed around a piece of paper and asked the teenagers to check what interested them.
The word “robotics” was on the list, and Xavier, who has always been homeschooled, was hooked. He joined the 4-H Stars, an Oklahoma FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition team.
With FIRST Robotics Competition, student teams are challenged to build a robot with specific capabilities and then compete against other teams. Xavier describes his early experience as great, even though his team didn’t have a lot of success in the competitions.
“With robots, it’s just impossible not to think they are just awesome, no matter what,” he told me.
The most surprising thing about the FIRST Robotics Competition to Xavier was that it isn’t actually focused on the robot.
Instead it’s focused on getting kids trained to go into the world of science and technology and actually perform.
Xavier kept going with FIRST. He and a group of other homeschoolers with the leadership of parent Vince Liao formed a homeschoolers team, the Lightsabers, now more than 25 members strong; Xavier’s job on the team was to program the robot.
The team has gone to FIRST World Competition multiple times, most recently as the winner of the prestigious Regional Chairman’s Award. This award is given to the “role model” team — the team that goes beyond having a great robot to encourage more students and mentors to get involved.
Although Xavier has completed his high school studies and is now employed as a professional programmer, he still participates hours every week as a team mentor.
“The parallels I see between FRC (First Robotics Competition) and my real job are shocking. FRC was the perfect incubator,” he says. “I would tell every kid to get involved with FRC. No matter what they are interested in, there is something there to get them excited. If they like to work with their hands, they can fabricate. If they like computers, they can program. If they are more into talking with people, they can handle the competition interviews.”
That sums it up.
From oil to aerospace to information technology, it’s a challenge to find enough trained people to fill technical jobs. The secret to attracting students to technical fields is to interest them early on and keep them engaged and excited.
The FIRST Robotics Competition does exactly that.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org.
DID YOU KNOW? There are more than $19 million in 850-plus scholarship opportunities from 150-plus providers available to the 67,500 students on 2,700 FIRST Robotics Competition teams.