Juneau kids are eager to be part of a robotics program sweeping the state. The materials and funding are available. All the program is missing is coaches.
The FIRST program was launched 20 years ago and gets students from elementary school through high school involved in building small robots — from LEGO blocks at the lower levels — as a team and programming them to complete tasks and compete against others. FIRST operates nationwide and has picked up steam in Alaska. Twenty Alaska school districts participate in the program, state coordinator Rebecca Soza said.
Soza spoke at Thursday’s Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon about the program and Juneau’s teams, which are starting their season. Last year, Juneau schools boasted 14 robotics teams, four at Thunder Mountain High School. The FIRST program encourages science and math learning to prepare students for the growing STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — career field, Soza said. Alaska’s teams are organized and supported by the Juneau Economic Development Council.
“We’ve seen it work just as well in our inner city schools in Anchorage as it does in villages of 80 people,” Soza said. “It’s all about problem-solving, setting goals. You’re going to want to hire these kids in a few years.”
Right now, FIRST in Alaska is recruiting volunteer coaches and referees to guide student learning. Coaches don’t have to be computer whizzes or science buffs, they just have to be willing to learn along with students and be there for support, Soza said. Referees oversee competitions — learning to be a friendly and respectful competitor is part of the program, she said.
Without more coaches, the Juneau program can’t grow, Soza said. JEDC wants to make math and science learning fun and accessible to as many children as possible, she said.
“It is the limiting factor,” Soza said. “We can’t provide a team without having a coach there. Materials and space are available at every school in Juneau.”
Montessori Borealis sixth-grader Rachel Erben said learning how to build and program a robot was the best part of being on a FIRST team last year. At the lower FIRST levels, students use LEGO kits to create a robot and an obstacle course of tasks it must complete. Last year’s competition was natural disaster-themed, and LEGO robots were tasked with rescuing tiny LEGO pets and setting up emergency signs.
“The project was the most fun thing,” she said. “We all got to contribute to our project and that made it so much better.”
TMHS senior Jared Lear was also at the luncheon, showing off a robot his team created last year. This is his third year on a robotics team.
At the high school level, students use metal parts and motors to create a larger robot that must complete a number of tasks. The teams use computer programming language C++ to tell robots what to do.
“It’s really fun to meet that challenge,” he said.
For more information on the FIRST in Alaska program or to sign up to volunteer, contact Soza at firstname.lastname@example.org.