This past winter, Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST, started a campaign that runs very closely in parallel with the mission of SLSRA. He blogged about it in the Huffington Post, with the wonderful title, The Only Sport Where Everyone Can Go Pro: Robotics. With acknowledgment Mr. Kamen, here is my favorite quote from the article:
So I’m working on a movement to make robotics an official school sport, with opportunities for students to compete in competitions that rival Friday night football games in the way they are celebrated by the school and the community.
We know that his particular project, establishing robotics as an official school sport, is fraught with bureaucratic complexities that vary state-by-state, and we know that there are many student robotics teams that are not affiliated with a school, or are affiliated with more than one school! Indeed, our association has a special focus on teams that seek affiliation outside of school.
Nevertheless, Mr. Kamen's vision includes our vision, and he illustrates it with the most perfect imagery: A "Friday Night Lights" event, maybe not on Friday, and maybe lit by the glow of LEDs and computer screens, but with the same community interest that fuels the high school football phenomenon, having robotics teams at the center of it.
Most everyone enjoys a community sporting event, and most everyone involved in the event can benefit from it, even the losing teams. If you have any doubt that community sporting events are win-win, consider how the fans often pay admission, as do the teams, while coaches and players are often volunteers, seeking only the benefits of the sport combined with the attention of the fans.
If you substitute student robotics for sport, a new dimension of benefit is added. Exploring the special community benefits offered by vibrant student robotics competitions is going to be a recurring theme in this blog. Let me introduce one more theme to this post, to spark your imagination. In Mark Hatch's book The Maker Movement Manifesto, Mr. Hatch describes what happens when a community aligns itself with the maker movement:
Those cities that get this right will develop a vibrant creative cluster, and that cluster will produce culture, music, art, start-ups -- and jobs.
One of the things that drew us to create SLSRA was our observation that, as student robotics evolves beyond simple snap-together robots, and toward robotic projects that require team members to learn real-world skills, there is very little fabric in St. Louis to connect teams with the necessary real-world resources. As you can imagine, I'm talking about computer controlled fabrication equipment to make custom parts or whole robots, and the training to design the parts and work the equipment. I'm talking about the equipment and training to make printed circuit boards. Even such things as battery load testers are not readily available to most teams. Teams can build character by making do without specialized equipment and training, but in our view they may also miss out on valuable learning opportunities. And so, when laying out our goals for SLSRA, we identified connecting teams with makerspace resources as an immediate, year-one goal.
Coincidently, fatefully, and to our great delight, we discovered that Tech Shop was opening a location in St. Louis, in the heart of the Cortex innovation district. We immediately reached out to Tech Shop to learn how we can work together to further our mutual goals, and were pleased to find a very warm reception from Tech Shop St. Louis director of business development, Chris Ruzicka. We were very proud when Mr. Ruzicka placed a banner-sized SLSRA logo on Tech Shop's construction fence, and sent us the attached photo. Stay tuned for some group photos around the banner with our charter affiated robotics teams!
I think you will find, if you google for Mark Hatch and Dean Kamen, that they are rarely mentioned together. Nevertheless, we at SLSRA are convinced that there is a great synergy between the two men's visions. One synergistic product, we believe, will be the addition of an artistic element to robotics competitions, along the lines of industrial design. SLSRA is reaching out to industrial design professionals, including local IDSA members, to crystalize this idea.