FIRST Robotics scores high marks from Ontario teachers for offering their students top-notch practical - and universal - learning experiences, even if the program is not always tied to the curriculum.

by Michael Benedict

The FIRST Robotics Greater Toronto Regional Finals was held at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga last April

Under siege from a cacophony of noise, Tony Petrecca protects himself with oversized headphones. Petrecca is sitting in a screaming crowd energized by loud music and public address announcers. He is among the 2,000-strong gathering in Mississauga’s Hershey Centre, where excited students, teachers, parents and supporters like himself cheer on the teams at the Greater Toronto Regional FIRST Robotics Competition.

Petrecca, like a loyal sports fan, follows his Governor Simcoe SS Simbotics team from St. Catharines as it competes throughout Ontario and neighbouring states. A major sponsor of the Simbotics team, Petrecca also attends the four-day world championships in the United States if Simbotics qualifies - which it usually does. (It won the worlds in 2008. The only other Canadian world champion came from Montréal in 2006.) “I always bring these along,” Petrecca says of the headphones. “It’s self-protection against vicious headaches.”

On the arena floor below, two teams of three robots each are competing in an intricate game that tests a range of technical and teamwork skills that the student operators have been working to perfect for several months. There are 72 teams in the competition from all over Ontario and as far afield as Mexico this day in early April. At least the top six will gain a place at the world championships later in the month in St. Louis. The winners garner prestige for their schools, and some of the competitors tap into the $14 million in FIRST Robotics university scholarships. The stakes are high, indeed.

January launch - it’s not about the robots

Established in 1989, FIRST (for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) attempts to “inspire young people to be science and technology leaders.” But there is more to it than that. The FIRST mission also includes fostering well-rounded “life capabilities” such as self-confidence, communication, teamwork and leadership, those so-called soft skills that are critical to success on leaving school.

“It’s not about the robots,” FIRST founder Dean Kamen tells a worldwide closed-circuit audience on a Saturday morning in January before unveiling the 2011 game. Kamen is an American inventor/entrepreneur, best known for creating the Segway, an electric scooter-like, single-person vehicle.

The Ontario Science Centre auditorium is packed at 9 am despite a surprise snowstorm that is playing havoc with driving conditions outside. Attendance is limited to 10 members from each of the 65 sanctioned Ontario secondary school robotics teams from across the province. They are here to pick up their basic kits and the rules for this year’s competition. They’re also here to get pumped before beginning the intensive six-week robot-building and training period.

“Robots are just a vehicle,” continues Kamen. “What you are building is way bigger. It’s about self-confidence. It’s about relationships. It’s about making sure the future is better than the past.

“Don’t blow this opportunity by thinking it’s about robots.”

Training camp, March 2011

Greg Phillips, OCT, is standing in the former gymnasium of what was once a high school just outside Niagara-on-the-Lake. Phillips, a manufacturing technology teacher at nearby Governor Simcoe, is putting the Simbotics robot through its final paces in this borrowed space, the team’s training ground.

At Governor Simcoe, FIRST is an extracurricular program, while some schools feature it as part of Specialist High Skills Major studies. How FIRST fits in to the school program is up to the school. But either way the students benefit. “FIRST Robotics opens tremendous opportunities for the kids,” Phillips says. “They learn from experiencing the real world of expectations.”

Over the past decade, the FIRST program has expanded from its US base to attract schools from around the world. The Ontario government has become a convert, too, announcing $3 million in its 2010 budget over five years to support FIRST Robotics efforts to get more schools and teachers involved. Noting that no other country and only six American states have more FIRST competitors than Ontario, Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky says, “Hands-on programs like FIRST Robotics capture our students’ imagination and provide real-world skills.”

It’s 9 am and Phillips and his Simbotics team members are alert despite being sleep deprived. They left the practice field at 4 am. “Normally, we go 72 hours straight before putting the robot away, but this year we made good progress, so we got to bed early,” he says, not joking.

Later this day the Simbotics robot must be sealed in a container and stored, not to be touched again until the team enters its first competition en route to its world championship goal.

The former gym has been converted into a replica of the official FIRST Robotics playing field, following the specifications laid out in the 12-page rule book for this year’s competition. The game changes annually but the object is the same: Design, build and program a robot to perform a varied set of tasks that are awarded points depending on the degree of difficulty. The robot has a maximum weight of 120 pounds, not counting the battery, and can’t be more than five feet tall. This year, one of the robot’s essential tasks is to pick up an inflated triangle, square or circle, all with holes in the middle, carry it to one end of the 54-foot-long field and place it on pegs on a pillar from three feet to 10 feet above the ground.

Photo Photo

Greg Phillips (centre rear) and the Governor Simcoe SS Simbotics team from St. Catharines with their entry in the 2011 FIRST Robotics Competition

Members of école secondaire catholique Saint-François-Xavier’s Team X-Empire, in Darth-Vader-inspired team shirts, take a break before powering up their FIRST Robotics entry.

Jess, a Grade 11 Governor Simcoe student, is this year’s Simbotics captain, chosen by her two dozen teammates. Phillips welcomes all participants as long as they keep up their grades. For her part, Jess has been involved with robotics since Grade 6 when her Grade 9 brother was a Simbotics team member. Along with her family, she accompanied him to regional competitions, helping to scout the opposition from the stands. “I’ve been hooked ever since,” she says.

The FIRST Robotics experience involves much more than machine work, she says. “There’s design, web site animation, and I am learning about co-operation. You learn how to work with others to build something from the ground up. That builds self-confidence.”

The Simbotics team will go on to win two other prestigious regionals, in Waterloo and Pittsburgh, before entering the April Greater Toronto Regional.

Greater Toronto Regional Finals, April 2011

Sarnia’s école secondaire Saint-François-Xavier was one of 72 Ontario teams that made their way to the Hershey Centre in Mississauga for the Greater Toronto Regional Tournament.

“It’s been a huge positive,” mathematics and physical education teacher Mark Phillips, OCT, says of the three-day event.

The school’s X-Empire robot experienced a number of technical problems this season, but those adversities have been turned into opportunities. “The kids troubleshoot themselves,” says Phillips, the team leader. “They have to apply their math, physics and technology studies to solve real problems. That’s an excellent learning experience.”

And just being at the tournament is worthwhile. “It’s a chance to meet with the practising engineers and CEOs who are spectators or act as judges,” he adds. “Last year, one of our kids got a summer job that way.”

It’s inspiring because as a team we can overcome any obstacle.

Like the other teachers who joined FIRST Robotics merely to lend a hand, Phillips has become a proselytizer for the program - an extracurricular activity at his school. “FIRST has an incredibly positive effect on students,” he says. “We had one student who was not performing well at school, but once he started the program, he went from two credits per semester to six. How can that not inspire you?”

Phillips goes on to tell of another team member who “never spoke” before joining X-Empire. “Now, he talks all the time, plays instruments and has even joined our school fitness course. And we have students who never wanted to be at school. Now, I have to order them to go home.

“If you look at students’ marks before they joined the program compared to afterwards, you can see the positive effect. They gain a lot of self-confidence as they find solutions to real problems. When they get to university, they will already know what it’s like to experience pressure, and they’ll know how to manage that stress.”

For their part, X-Empire team members seem remarkably unstressed. “You can’t be afraid to make mistakes because they are always going to happen, no matter what,” says Grade 11 student Justin. “I have learned to accept this fact. You have to stay calm and work with what you have.”

At the Waterloo Regional, the robot constantly experienced difficulties. But the team turned that into a positive, too. “It’s inspiring,” Justin says, “because as a team we can overcome any obstacle. It’s inspiring to never give up.”

Adds Andres, a Grade 12 exchange student from Ecuador: “I’ve learned that I have to work problems out, and that if I can’t do it, I have to ask for help.

“I’ve learned how to make decisions and how to work in a group. Expect the worst and be prepared. And that’s not just for the project but also in life. If it doesn’t work, be prepared to fix it.”

Qualifying rounds

Team Simbotics has steamrolled through the qualifying rounds undefeated to join the three-team Red Alliance in the finals. All FIRST competitions involve three teams on each side, called an alliance. But over the course of the contest, the makeup of alliances changes.

The Simbotics lead sponsor is General Motors, which also backs the two other squads in today’s Red Alliance finals: one, Westlane SS, is from Niagara Falls, the other, Bishop Grandin HS, wearing Stetsons, has come from Calgary.

“Look, our robot goes twice as fast as the others,” says supporter Petrecca. Indeed, the Simbotics robot covers 16 feet per second (17.5 kilometres per hour), a definite advantage in the first stage of this competition.

The game starts with a 15-second autonomous segment in which the robot is programmed to work on its own. There are no student operators to direct the robot or manipulate its arm. It has been “trained” to pick up one of the inflatable tubes, go halfway across the field and hang it on one of three pegs. The higher the peg, the more challenging the task and the greater the points.

About half the teams in this competition skip this part of the game, unable to master the requisite programming skills. Others can barely manage to hang one tube at the three-foot level. But the Simbotics robot seamlessly places one tube on the top ring, races back to the starting position, picks up a second, speeds back to the pillar and places it on another top-row rung. The closing bell for the segment rings and Simbotics has grabbed 12 points.

The Red Alliance now faces the Blue Alliance, which includes Canada’s first FIRST Robotics team, the Blizzard, from Toronto’s Woburn Collegiate Institute. Mathematics teacher Mark Heritage, OCT, leads this extracurricular team, which has won countless awards in the past, including two regional championships.

The Blizzard robotics-training regime is not as intense as that of the Simbotics team. Instead, a classroom at Woburn is dedicated year-round to robotic activity of one sort or another. Still, during the six-week building period, students work every night until 9 pm, including weekends, when they start at 9 am, with parents bringing in meals on a roster basis.

Unlike Simbotics’s Phillips, who worked as a welder and owned a construction firm before becoming a teacher, Heritage has no practical building experience. Yet he understands its value. “I do this because it teaches problem solving in a real-world environment,” he says. “We are given a task and have to design a robot to complete the job. And we face deadlines, just like in the business world. And just like in the business world, we depend on our colleagues to achieve our objective.

“It’s hands-on instead of textbook learning.”

Cool “coopertition”

Heritage also points to the values of FIRST Robotics that distinguish it from other competitions. Here, winning isn’t everything. “This is not like hockey,” he says. “FIRST teams help each other out during tournaments. If someone needs a part or help with a repair, an announcement goes out and other teams come over to lend a hand.”

Indeed, every FIRST competition includes a Coopertition Award for the team that best helps its opponents compete as well as a Gracious Professionalism Award that “celebrates outstanding sportsmanship.” In fact, FIRST’s “most prestigious award” is the Chairman’s Award for the team that “best represents a model for other teams to emulate and best embodies the purpose and goals of FIRST.” The Blizzard has won all these awards at some point in the past. (At the Greater Toronto Regional, Simbotics won the Chairman’s Award, among others, and Phillips won the Outstanding Volunteer of the Year Award.)

Photo Photo

Mark Heritage (right), a math teacher at Toronto’s Woburn Collegiate Institute, leads the Blizzard team - Canada’s first FIRST Robotics team and winner of many past awards.

Red and Blue team alliances battle it out at the Greater Toronto Regional Finals in April.

Kajeevan, a Grade 12 student at Woburn, is proud of his contribution as one of the Blizzard’s designers. It’s his fourth year on the team, and he thinks building robotics is “really cool.”

And he’s not the only one. of Black Eyed Peas, for one, is a big FIRST booster. attended the January 2011 game unveiling with Kamen and entertained the more than 20,000 people attending the world championships in St. Louis.

“I’m here because I’m inspired by you guys,” said at the launch. “You guys are coo-ol.”

For his part, Kajeevan says one FIRST Robotics benefit is inter-grade friendship. His best friend last year was a graduating student who is now studying engineering on a scholarship at UC Berkeley. “And it’s all because of robotics,” says Kajeevan, who wants to study engineering and knows the FIRST experience is giving him a leg up in more ways than one. “People complain that engineers have terrible communication skills,” he says. “Here we learn how to sell our ideas and interact with others.”

Geoff Allan, a Governor Simcoe graduate who continues as a mentor with the Simbotics team, would no doubt agree. As an undergraduate at Waterloo University, Allan returned to St. Catharines on weekends during the six-week robot-building period. Now an interest-rate trader in Chicago, he still flies home for a few weekends to lend a hand and assist at regional tournaments.

“It’s rewarding to see the influence FIRST has on kids and what it does for their careers,” says Allen. “I’m also a sports fan and the game appeals to me. While the competition draws me in, I stay to see the co-operation, the team building and to watch the kids mature. They learn mechanical skills, how to overcome tough situations - and to have fun.”

Best two out of three - Game One

On the final afternoon of the Greater Toronto Regional Finals, the Blizzard robot is not having any fun. It is struggling in the first game of a best-two-out-of-three series but manages to place one shape during the autonomous tube-hanging stage. Next, the two-minute free-for-all is under way. Each team has one operator controlling the robot’s speed and direction and another to handle its vital arm. A third student, when instructed, throws tubes onto the field. Once on the field, the tubes are fair game for any robot, so strategy is involved. Depending on the team, other students may be gathered around providing advice, but teachers and mentors are not part of the mix. They watch nervously from the stands.

The Blizzard robot is doing fine when it comes to picking up and carrying tubes but is having trouble with the release. Meanwhile, the Simbotics robot effortlessly picks up tubes, dancing around opponents who are trying to block it from scoring. It smoothly places the tubes on pegs in ways that maximize points.

In this, the first round, the Simbotics Red Alliance trounces the Blues and the Blizzard by a score of 130 to nine.

Best two out of three - Game Two

Before the second game, opposing teams shake hands, another demonstration of the good sportsmanship values emphasized by FIRST. If the Reds win this one, they win the championship. If the Blues win, there will be a winner-take-all third and final match.

This time the Blues get off to a stronger start. But they are still no match for the Reds. The Simbotics robot is having a field day by positioning itself under the pegs, scooping up tubes dropped by competitors and placing them properly on the pegs. For about 30 seconds it does nothing but score these easy points. The game ends 103 to 56. The Red Alliance wins the day.

FIRST outcomes

At the 352-team world championships in St. Louis, the best overall showing by an Ontario team came from the Kincardine District SS contingent, which made it to the finals, losing out to a US alliance.

The Orchard Park SS team from Stoney Creek won the Rockwell Automation Innovation in Control Award.

Grade 12 student Nick from Oakville Trafalgar HS made it to the 10-student Dean’s List from over 3,500 nominated for their leadership and commitment to FIRST ideals.

Woburn’s Blizzard - in an alliance that included the private Crescent School in Toronto - made it to a division final before bowing out.

Our teams and students have definitely become a factor on the world stage.

The Westlane team, which had partnered with Simbotics to win the Greater Toronto Regional, won a division title but lost in a semi-final.

Simbiotics had some bad luck in the qualifying rounds when it was allied with other teams whose robots broke down at the starting gate. As a result, it finished out of the running.

“Sometimes that’s the way the game works,” Phillips said after returning from the finals. “When you are not in control of your destiny, anything can happen.”

FIRST Canada Robotics Executive Director Mark Breadner, OCT, says he was pleased with the performance of Ontario’s teams at the worlds. “Our teams and students have definitely become a factor on the world stage. It should inspire more teams to participate,” he says.

Even though FIRST programs are mostly extracurricular, their impact on the learning experience cannot be underestimated, according to Breadner. He says that surveys he conducts of participants at regional tournaments show that nine out of 10 (89 per cent) students credit FIRST with boosting their self-confidence. When it comes to co-operation, 97 per cent say it has improved their ability to work as part of a team.

FIRST is of particular benefit for at-risk students. Explains Breadner: “They become part of a team, want to succeed and don’t want to let their teammates down.”

This motivation also affects how they do in their school work, says Breadner.

FIRST’s emphasis on the soft skills translates into better learning. The kids say FIRST gives them greater self-confidence when you might expect them to say its main benefit is that they have learned how to better use tools. FIRST is right: It’s not about the robots.”

Ontario’s flourishing FIRST Robotics

Mark Breadner, OCT, is the godfather of FIRST Robotics in Canada. He created the first Canadian team at Woburn CI in the late 1990s when he taught math and computer science at the Toronto high school.

“I was looking for something extra challenging, fun and exciting,” he recalls. “I had heard about FIRST and phoned them to ask if they would consider a Canadian team. When they said yes, I started to organize parents and sponsors.”

“I was struck with the co-operative spirit at the tournament,” Breadner says. “There is an incredible willingness to help others that made me realize this was no ordinary cut-throat high school competition.”

Breadner encouraged other schools and companies like General Motors, with its active robotics program, to become FIRST sponsors.

In those early years there were no Ontario tournaments, and the Blizzard went directly to the world championships. Woburn’s Blizzard was the first non-American FIRST team.

By 2002 there were enough Ontario teams to hold the first FIRST competition in Canada. In 2011 the 2,000-team competition included 80 teams from Canada and 75 from 11 other countries. The Toronto DSB has been hugely supportive and continues to pay the $4,000 or $5,000 entry fees for its teams to enter at least one competition.

These days Breadner is on secondment as Executive Director of FIRST Robotics Canada, a position created last year from the provincial $3-million grant and corporate donations. He travels around the province meeting with teachers and principals to encourage them to establish a robotics team. He links rookie teams with veteran competitors.

For more information on FIRST programs in Canada, visit

What you need

FIRST Robotics Canada Executive Director Mark Breadner suggests that to start a team you need:

And then there’s the money. Clearly, building a robot and taking it around to competitions is an expensive proposition, but the current roster of participating Ontario schools covers the economic waterfront. Schools from poorer areas still manage to field teams, thanks to sponsors.

Though the competition is not directly tied to curriculum, there are solid results for students, and program success hinges on dedicated teachers. Breadner says that once teachers become involved they stick with it because they understand that it’s a powerful learning tool.

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