NC FIRST Robotics program grooms science and tech heroes of the future

There has been a growing buzz in the media about the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education and the struggle to ensure students receive enough of it in public schools. Part of the reason for this intense focus is that the U.S. Department of Labor expects there will be 1.2 million job openings in STEM related fields by 2018, but there won’t be enough qualified graduates to fill those jobs.

According to a Harris Interactive survey, many students who choose a math or science career interacted with a teacher or participated in a program that inspired them and helped launch their STEM career path. NC FIRST Robotics, which was created to help students acquire the knowledge and skills needed to compete in our technologically-driven society, is one such program. 

The Triangle will get a taste of what it means to be a NC FIRST Robotics competitor during the upcoming regional robotics competition March 19-21 at Dorton Arena on the NC State Fairgrounds.

While NC FIRST sponsors other activities for younger students in grades K-8, the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) is the premier engineering challenge for high school students. Teams of students, working closely with teachers and volunteer mentors, have six weeks to conceptualize, design, build, program, modify, and test a robot to participate in the competition.

The challenge given to teams each year is unique, a never-before-seen opportunity to prove their engineering mettle. This year’s “Recycle Rush” asks teams to create a robot that can pick up packing totes, stack them, cap them with recycling bins on top, and fill them with pool noodles representing trash.

 This year’s NC FIRST Robotics challenge: “Recycle Rush.”


According to NC FIRST Robotics’ Executive Director, Marie Hopper, one of the best qualities of these competitions is that they teach students the soft skills they’ll need in the work place in addition to the tech. Hopper says that with an emphasis on “coopetition,” the FRC asks students to compete enthusiastically but with “gracious professionalism.” In order for a team to win, they must work well with their partner alliance, which changes throughout the competition so that a partner one match may be a competitor in the next and then a partner again. The randomness ensures cooperation since any competitor in one match may well be a partner in the next.

“We’re teaching kids to learn, ask for help, and work on a team in a hands-on way. A lot of those things you can’t really teach in a class,” said Hopper.

The FRC has inspired many students to move into a STEM field, including Hopper’s own son. “A lot of kids don’t believe in themselves because they may not have been good academically, but they have a knack for engineering. They get hooked and realize they are good at something they enjoy. This changes lives, and I love watching that happen.”

View the intense winning match from last year’s competition.


Sharlini Sankaran, REACH NC executive director and FRC volunteer judge since the inaugural Raleigh regional event, believes that programs like this are a step toward celebrating STEM achievements just as much as we celebrate athletic and artistic achievements. Sankaran emphasized that she comes back each year because “working with these motivated and inspiring students – the scientists and engineers of the future – shows me that our future is going to be very bright.”

Hopper encourages families to come to this weekend’s FRC to see what it’s all about. The event is free and open to the public, and the best days to view the excitement are March 20 and 21. Attendees can participate in a behind the scenes tour, and there are hands-on activities for younger students.

For those interested in volunteering, this is just one of many events that NC FIRST sponsors throughout the year. NC FIRST also needs team and event sponsors. Currently, there are 50 teams in NC, spanning the mountains to the coast. However, with the ever-increasing deficit between STEM jobs and people to fill them, expanding opportunities for students to learn in fun and engaging ways is a good investment for NC tech companies and the entire state.

– Stephanie Suber