The Engineering Our Future booth at Automation Fair in Philadelphia is filled with future innovators and leaders. "The booth shows a progression of the FIRST Robotics competitions and another partner of Rockwell, MIND Research Institute, which focuses on math development at early ages," said Jay Flores, global STEM ambassador at Rockwell Automation. "We are working to make sure the students have a base knowledge of math, so it’s not a barrier to them getting into a STEM or automation career in the future."
Rockwell Automation is an active mentor and contributor to FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, which helps to increase participation of young people in STEM curricula (short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics). There are many branches to these programs for children ages 6-18 (grades K-12). More than 200 Rockwell Automation employees volunteer their time outside of work to mentor teams.
FIRST starts with LEGO League Jr. with children as young as six years old (ages 6-10, grades K-4) designing and building automation and developing leadership skills through teamwork. "It's one of the keys we have been focusing on," said Flores. "A lot of companies and organizations are looking at how to get kids excited about STEM—we are looking at how to keep them excited."
An early start
Children are naturally curious from the time they are little when they are tinkering around and trying to figure things out, explained Flores. "This program provides a firm, safe space for them to continue down the path from three different, age-based FIRST LEGO leagues and ending with the FIRST Robotics Competition for ages 14-18 (grades 9-12) that combines the excitement of sport with the precision of science and technology and real automation," he said.
"Even at six years old, the kids are doing a bit of programming,” Flores explained. “They use a laptop and some block programming software, created by LEGO Education, to control some small motors.”
As the ages advance, the students start working with more complex devices, including “brick” controllers and different types of sensors. "At nine or 10 years old, they are already working with color sensors, gyro sensors and ultrasonic sensors. When they come to work at Rockwell or one of our customers in the future, they already have 10 years of experience using a variety of sensors."
In middle school, students can advance to FIRST Tech Challenge. At this more advanced level, they use a cell phone and Java-based Android program to control a robot. The tasks are more complex, and the participants must purchase parts for the robot, so they must be aware of budgets, as well.
"While the lower levels are judged on their presentations and how well they explain their demo, competitors at the Tech Challenge level are scored on how many tasks they can complete and how quickly," said Flores. "As part of the challenge, the robot must move something, retrieve different parts and bring back to the base, navigate obstacles and hang from a structure."
As a student progresses to high school, the FIRST Robotics Competition is where Rockwell Automation products come in. "The field where the students’ designed-and-built robots compete is fully automated with Rockwell Automation products including a ControlLogix controller," said Flores. "This includes the field management and the scoring system, which is real time and uses Rockwell sensors. Some Rockwell product is also provided in the robot kit, including ultrasonic and photo-electric sensors that the team can incorporate in their designs. The tasks are much more complex in this competition."
“We have seen a lot of students get excited about Rockwell Automation based on their experiences with FIRST and enter intern programs with us,” said Flores.