Explore →

Growing FIRST Robotics Program Brings STEM Opportunities to Underserved Students

Wilder Robotics Team

More students in far flung rural districts and in urban schools serving disadvantaged communities are getting a chance to gain hands-on experience building tech skills, teamwork and problem solving thanks to Virginia’s fast-growing FIRST Tech Challenge program.

“We get to use our creativity, to find out what works and what doesn’t work,” said Talaiyah Bolden, a 7th grader at Henrico County’s L. Douglas Wilder Middle School. “If you do it yourself, you learn more,” she added.

Students on FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) teams learn computer, mechanical and leadership skills as they build, program and operate robots to compete in contests that test their ingenuity.

FIRST programs encourage the next generation of leaders in science and technology by promoting STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.)

Wilder Middle School serves communities in the Richmond area where college usually seems to be a distant dream. Janet Nowlin, a secondary gifted resource teacher for Henrico, started one FTC team at Wilder two years ago and is mentoring an additional rookie team there this year.

“FTC is a great way to expose kids to the kinds of subjects and ideas that they haven’t seen before,” said Nowlin.  “At the middle school level, it’s important to give them a hands-on learning experience. Whether they’re college-bound or would benefit more from a technical training program, FIRST opens doors for students to achieve successful careers.”

“I like designing and making things,” said 6th grader Michael Goode. “We get to use different materials to build the robot. I also designed a new logo for our team t-shirts.”

The FIRST Tech Challenge program in Virginia has more than doubled in size in recent years, growing from 72 teams in 2011 to 170 statewide this year. Program director Carol Edelman says FTC owes its growth in part to the program’s affordability (roughly $2,000 start-up cost per team, vs. $10,000 for the larger “varsity” robots built by high-school based FIRST Robotics Competition teams).  “We couldn’t do it without generous support from sponsors like Rockwell Collins, Capitol One and Genworth,” said Edelman.

People can see the FIRST Tech Challenge program in action across Virginia in the next few weeks. This year’s competition season features a game called “Cascade Effect,” which challenges student-built robots to collect plastic balls into movable goals.

All FIRST events are free and open to the public. Regional qualifying tournaments will be held in the following locations:

  • December 6 – Central Virginia Qualifier – Arthur Ashe Center, Richmond
  • December 13 – Northern Virginia Qualifier – Battlefield H.S., Haymarket
  • January 10 – Shenandoah Qualifier, UVA Slaughter Rec Ctr., Charlottesville
  • January 10 – Southwest Virginia Qualifier, Southwest Virginia Community College, Cedar Bluff
  • January 24 – Eastern Virginia Qualifier, Norfolk State University, Norfolk
  • January 31 – North Central Virginia Qualifier, Orange County High School, Orange
  • February 28 – State Championship, St. Christopher’s School, Richmond

For times and addresses, click here. In case of inclement weather the day of the event, please call 804.464.8945 after 5am for updates.

FIRST offers engaging, age-appropriate robotics programs for students K-12. To learn more, please visit www.virginiafirst.org.

Story and photos by Jim Babb/VirginiaFIRST