FIRST Robotics team

FIRST Robotics and Australia’s National Identity

Date Published:
May 9, 2018

Once upon a time the Olympics were held here. Today we’re at the First Robotics Regional Finals.

We’re in one of Australia’s biggest indoor sporting arenas — Sydney Olympic Park. The atmosphere is electric and the first thing you notice when you walk through door is the low level hum of kids talking over each other, sharp metal on metal clanks and a commentator leading some war cries.

Once upon a time the Olympics were held here. Today we’re at the First Robotics Regional Finals.

Sport has always been a part of Australia’s identity. The stories we tell about ourselves are loaded with tales of the underdog achieving far more than could ever be expected from a small nation such as ours. Adaptable, independent, sport loving and resolute. Resistant to authority. Resilient in the face of hardship and heroic in overcoming the odds.

If you travel outside Australia the people you meet speak enthusiastically about the outgoing Australian they once met — the person who didn’t mind jumping in an having a go.

On a recent trip to the United States an American told me he “prefers to have at least one Australian in the room with things go bad”.

These aspirational qualities form a large part of the sporting stories we tell. Historically we’ve punched well above our weight in Tennis, Swimming, Rugby and Cricket. Through these narratives and others we’ve created the Australian character.

Back to Olympic Park.

We’re spending the day with about 1200 young people, all in high school and a few even in primary school. Some have travelled from Blacktown. Some from Wee Waa. Others from India and China. They are competing in the First Robotics Australian Regional finals. The winners from today will go on to compete in the First Robotics Championships in Houston, Texas.

We invited some people close to Blackbird to witness this awesome spectacle first hand. At the end of the day we’ll ask them to help sponsor some of the winning teams to compete in the Globals in Texas.

We bring them all the way to Homebush because it’s kind of hard to explain First Robotics to someone who hasn’t seen it first hand.

Young people from all over the world form into teams and build robots that are meant to complete certain tasks. The requirements change every year and this year their robots are to move large square blocks around a competition field and into containers. The team with the most blocks in containers at the end win.

Over 6 weeks, they learn how to design and build the robots and write the code that drives them. They learn how to fix them when they break down. How to pack a robot into modular pieces so it can be shipped across the country or, if everything goes right, to the USA.

But FIRST is about so much more than that. They learn how to raise money and enlist the support of their local communities. They learn to work together and overcome a myriad of challenges. They develop the attributes and values that will shape their entire lives. They’re becoming entrepreneurs.

When you stack all of these skills together and pack them in to a 15 year old, the results are impressive.

We met one young woman who, before she joined FIRST was selectively mute. She hadn’t talked to anyone in years.

She was in charge of showing us around the competition, introducing us to some teams and generally telling the story of FIRST and how it has impacted her life. We were a group of investors, CEOs, Founders and type As. She didn’t skip a beat and through her genuine passion, eloquence and spirit she talked many of us in to sponsoring FIRST teams to go to the USA.

All this because she joined a FIRST robotics team.

This isn’t an isolated story. FIRST Australia is full of tales of young underdogs who have overcome adversity and are achieving far more than anyone thought them capable of.

Team 3132, The Thunder from Downunder, is the original Australian FIRST team. Started out of living room of an American expat because her daughter was new to the country and wanted to meet like minded people. The entire FIRST Australia organisation, now with over 900 registered teams, was born from Team 3132.

Last year Team 3132 won the Chairman’s Award at the World Championships in the USA. This is the highest honour any team can get. Think about that for a second — 5 years ago there wasn’t a single team in Australia. We didn’t have a local competition, few schools were running robotics programs of any sort and now an Australian team is considered one of the best in the world. In the USA, FIRST has been running for over 30 years. Think of all that generational knowledge and experience. Within 5 years, Australia is at the top.

It doesn’t stop there. In 2016, Team 6035 from Ulladulla were the highest ranked rookie team in the world.

You can see where I’m going with this.

The qualities these kids are developing are the very definition of the Australian character. They’re inventors, brave explorers, problem solvers. They aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. They aren’t intimidated by tough competition from countries with greater resources and more experience. In fact they thrive on this stuff.

They are the embodiment of a “fair go” and in fact this is written into the values of the FIRST competition (they call it Gracious Professionalism).FIRST Australia has come along at a time when we need it most. Our faith in the Australian character is being challenged, most recently by the Cricket Australia ball tampering scandal. We need a new set of heroes to embody our values and to shape our identity.

FIRST Robotics is cultivating in these young people the very qualities we as Australians aspire too. Not only this, they are cultivating an insatiable curiosity and the practical skills the next generation of Australian leaders will need.

If you’d like to help us support FIRST Robotics, get in touch. You can start by volunteering at an event, mentoring a team or even starting your own team.

Join us on this journey!