2007-04-20 / Columnists

School Scope

Woodie, The Rock Star
Commentary By Norman Scott

Commentary By Norman Scott

Norman Scott
Norman Scott He is tall and lean, his thinning gray hair swept back in a long ponytail. His usual garb: jeans, sneakers and a dungaree jacket covered with names signed in multi-colored markers. He towers above the hordes of teenagers who often surround him waiting patiently for his autograph and the opportunity to find an open spot on his jacket to place their names (he has markers available for them to use.)

Another rock star from the 60's on yet another comeback tour? No, he is Woodie Flowers, professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and he is an international superstar in the worldwide robotics community.

I got to see Flowers work his magic at the annual FIRST World Robotic Festival at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta last week. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is the non-profit brainchild of inventor Dean Kamen, whose mantra is that society should value engineers and inventors the way it values athletes and rock stars. With the way teenagers are portrayed today on TV and the movies, one is tempted to say, "Good luck, Dean! Go directly to American Idol. Do not pass GO."

Well, I saw for myself in Atlanta (and also at the many robotic tournaments in the New York City area that I have been involved with over the past five years) that the Kamen and Flowers vision is becoming a reality. High school kids asking him to autograph their laptops - the new rock star, surrounded special guest Chad Hurley, the young co-founder of YouTube. Exactly what Kamen envisioned when the concept of FIRST first came to mind over 15 years ago.

The Georgia Dome: Home of football games, the Final Four basketball tournament just a week before, and numerous rock concerts converted into a robotic Mecca. Is there a gender gap in science and technology? When one of the speakers asked all the girls to stand, a sea of young ladies rose. When the MC shouts "Isaaaaac" and thousands of kids shout back "Newton!" you know you are in a special place.

FIRST tournaments are run like sporting events, with loud music, cheerleaders, MC's wearing wigs and colored hair, dancing and singing - a display of enthusiasm that entraps everyone in the spell.

Thousands of kids from elementary, middle and high schools along with many of their parents and siblings, engineers, college professors, scientists, business people, founding CEO's of major corporations; all come together in Atlanta every year for the World Festival. And they come from almost every state and many foreign nations. They are the winners of numerous regional and state competitions that go back as far as October.

Gracious professionalism is part of the FIRST mantra

For a group setting up competitive tournaments, FIRST works very hard to add a component to counter the evils of competition. The term 'gracious professionalism" was coined by Woodie and is described on the firstwiki web site:

"…learn and compete like crazy, but treat one another with respect and kindness in the process. We try to avoid leaving anyone feeling like they are losers. No chest thumping barbarian tough talk, but no sticky sweet platitudes either. Knowledge, pride and empathy comfortably blended.... In the long run, gracious professionalism is part of pursuing a meaningful life. "How does one act 'graciously professional'? Common sense goes a long way toward this. Act like you would want others to act. Help others out as often as you can. Be gracious, but at the same time, be professional. Booing would obviously not be graciously professional, but at the same time saying 'everyone is a winner' would be just as much so. It's all about healthy competition, or 'co-opetition.' Being graciously professional can include helping out a team, not doing so by giving out all the tools in your tool chest, but by 'sharing' them. It is a concept hard to explain, but easy to identify when seen."

Awards are given out at tournaments to teams who exhibit high levels of GP.

Three levels of competition

The high end First Robotics Competitions (FRC) is for the more advanced high school students, where competing alliances of teams (three on each side) manipulate their robots around a playing field. This year's game was "Rack and Roll" where alliances got points for placing inner tubes on a rack that just wouldn't stay still.

The more modest VEX Challenge, directed at upper middle school and high schools, uses a kit of erector set like metal parts to build a compact robot that has to move tennis balls into bins. Four robots were on a much smaller field at the same time.

Finally, the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) event for ages 9-14, a group that includes elementary, middle school and freshman high schoolers in a contest based on a theme, which this year was Nanotechnology, the science of very small things. Robots have a number of tasks to complete on an 8x4 foot playing area, all related to the theme. They are built out of LEGO parts that contain a microprocessor.

There is even a new event called Junior FLL for 6-9 year olds that FIRST is prototyping in various parts of the nation. (Expect a future event soon for the unborn.)

My efforts have been focused on the FLL elementary and middle school events since I became a volunteer coordinator of registration and team recruitment for NYC FIRST, the local branch five years ago when I retired from the NYC school system. It is the wisest choice of how to use my time I have made. I have gotten to know many of the people at FIRST headquarters in Manchester, NH where Kamen maintains his home and business and they are FIRST-rate people to work with. Ditto the New York crowd, which includes engineers, teachers, college and high school students who help run our local events.

Many of them were in Atlanta: amazing teachers and mentors taking kids on just a little field trip; high schools and a couple of middle schools from every borough, joined by others from all over the world. (When I saw all these schools on this massive field trip with teachers and parents trying to arrange for accommodations and flights and food for so many kids, I shuddered to think about how nervous I used to get at all my excursions on the subway.)

This was my first time at the WF and WOW! The experience was beyond expectations and FIRST did a first-rate job in making things run like clockwork. FIRST should be running the country.

There were 90 plus FIRST LEGO League teams - three teams from China - Taiwan, Hong Kong and Shanghai. And teams from Jordon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. FIRST may have found the answer for world peace.

I was asked by FIRST to assist on the upcoming 10th FLL anniversary video project and we interviewed everyone, including Dean Kaman and all the top officials from LEGO in addition to students, teachers, etc. Having "Happy Birthday FLL" shouted in multiple languages will be worth seeing.

Parents accompanied many of the younger team members and their enthusiasm for the program was intense. You've heard of soccer moms? Call them LEGO moms.

Woodie Flowers was the MC at the closing ceremonies on Saturday. He entered in an open car to the cheers of thousands of young fans. He had changed into a tux but kept on his sneakers. Later that evening when I left a reception for invited guests, there were a bunch of youngsters waiting outside for his autograph.

Virginia Tech FLL Volunteers

At the closing reception on Saturday, I sat with a great group of volunteers, students, former students and professors from Virginia Tech Engineering (the engineering building was the main site of the shooting) who have been an integral part of the FLL community in Virginia. I learned so much about the school and how close-knit a campus it is. One of the grads is at NASA working on the next generation shuttle but is still involved in Virginia Tech. An undergrad from Long Island was telling me how he was so glad to get away from the city sprawl to a quiet, safe place. He is joining the Air Force when he graduates this June.

Upon hearing the news of the massacre at Virginia Tech, concerns from around the world for FIRST colleagues at the school poured in. FIRST's Nancy Paul sent out this email on Tuesday:

"All of us at FIRST and in the entire FIRST community have our thoughts and prayers with everyone at Virginia Tech after the tragic events of yesterday morning. We have spoken with Bill and Susan Duggins, such dear and valued members of the FLL family. So far, it seems that most of those they and we work with directly on FLL are themselves okay, although they have suffered a terrible loss of friends and colleagues, and are still trying to contact some of their volunteers. They are all grieving and trying to understand this devastating and senseless tragedy, and appreciate the support that the FLL community has shared. Our thoughts and prayers remain with Bill and Susan and everyone at Virginia Tech during this extremely difficult time."

FIRST has created an international family - truly the FIRST Family.

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