Students, Soccer-Bots and the Future of Workteams

Dublin, OH Robotics Team 1014 tweaks their robot...

Credit: Dublin, OH Robotics Team 1014

It’s a hot summer Saturday in the middle of June.  Most kids are on summer vacation, but today, 200 students from around Ohio are in a school gym, competing in the CORI Connect a Million Minds 2010 Robotics Invitational, sponsored by Time Warner Cable.  It’s about robots PLAYING SOCCER and high school students created the robots!

Why are these students so engaged? Why are so many volunteers and sponsors across the nation, from education, business and communities, so deeply involved in FIRST robotics programs for students? What is the Central Ohio Robotics Initiative (CORI), and why is Ralston Consulting, in collaboration with others, so active in bringing CORI to life?

This type of event, one that captures the hearts, minds and excitement of the students, is the FUTURE. It is the future of how students learn, interlacing theory with hands-on innovation, mentorship and collaboration with competition, and technology with human character, ethics and spirit.  It is having a real-world impact increasing the likelihood that high school students will choose careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics-related fields (STEM), so critical to the future of our economy.

It is also the future of how workers will collaborate, and the future of how businesses will be managed. In a recent Wall Street Journal article titled: The End of Management, author Alan Murray underscores the crises organizations face as a result of the ineffective bureaucracies contributing to today’s corporate inertia. Organizations and their managers are not agile enough to deal with today’s rate of change.  It is, in point of fact, easier and more comfortable to not change.

Mr. Murray lists attributes of the ‘new science of management’:

  • mass collaboration;
  • a marketplace mentality of resource procurement and allocation; and
  • “structures that drive innovation, creativity and a spirit more akin to an entrepreneur.”

If this is the future of management, it is here, now, in the FIRST Robotics Competitions.

FIRST Scoring Criteria

Credit: FIRST Robotics

Rewind to the start of each year’s robotics competition: It’s 9:00am on a Saturday morning in early January, and bleary-eyed students come alive as they participate in a nationwide simulcast unveiling the game for the year. Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and the first insulin pump, and the mastermind behind FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), shares the closely guarded game and specifications bounding each year’s competition. (3D game animation from 2010 on the NASA site, here)

Over the next 6 weeks, the students voluntarily work after school and on weekends to design and build these robots for regional competitions.  The limited design/build window demands rapid prototyping, rapid decision-making, and levels-up students’ critical thinking skills.  Failures are part of the design process, and students master the ability to evaluate, learn adjust their designs, as they build, test, and rebuild their robots.

What drives these kids? They see it as fun – fun AND relevant. They create deep friendships with their teammates and mentors. They get to try on a career before going to college. They believe they have an advantage over their peers in the classroom, being more experienced in critical thinking skills and in the creative process as an outcome of their experience. Many of the students refocus their orientation toward school in order to master knowledge needed for their team to create a competitive robot.

The students apply their limited resources across the project, breaking down the robot into different elements, coming together to integrate work and breaking back up to small groups to accomplish additional tasks of presentations, video and web production, marketing and fundraising. Students with the most experience or knowledge mentor new/younger students, first, to get the job done, and second, to make sure that the next years team will have the talent pool adequate for future success.

In addition to their peers, student teams are matched with mentors (often college-age engineering students, and many, themselves, former FIRST team members) and advisors, who serve as facilitators, thinking partners and role models.

By design, Mr. Kamen intertwined collaboration as a fundamental value throughout the culture of FIRST.  Competition is structured with alliances of 3 teams, competing against another 3 team alliances. The alliances change every round.  Your determined competitor this round will likely be a vital ally in a future round. This fosters a spirit of Gracious Professionalism™“a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.” Gracious professionalism can be seen as experienced teams support rookie teams, or as equipment and parts are shared with ‘opponents’ to bring the level of competition up for all. The grace and professionalism exhibited by these student competitors could serve as an ethical model for many of today’s business leaders.

Newly founded, the Central Ohio Robotics Initiative (CORI) amplifies FIRST’s national structure and intent by developing a regional (and therefore, more affordable) competitive robotics event for Central Ohio. The group is a collaborative of parents, students, business owners, professors and teachers who have come together to help launch new teams, recruit advisors, and host these events for the betterment of the students and of the region.

What can business – your business – learn from these students?

  • Get over failure. It’s part of learning what works and what doesn’t.
  • Use rapid prototyping to accelerate learning and innovation.
  • Intentionally pair new people (or people new to their role) with mentors holding the needed content expertise.
  • Structure for collaboration.
  • Plan your firm’s capacity-building in the short-term in a way that positions it for long-term success. FIRST teams have a simultaneous focus on success both this year and next year, driving the teachers, mentors and experienced students to bring along the newer, less experienced / knowledgeable team members to prepare them for the following season.
  • Be conscious of the impact of culture on your initiative. In FIRST, students increase mastery in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in part because an environment has been created where geek – to be freaking smart – is cool. What would make your initiative the ‘cool’ place to be?

It’s not just the future, it’s our future. These students are the future of our country. I have great faith that these students will master the science and technology needed for their careers, but they will also be wonderful managers, leaders and innovators. Ralston Consulting is delighted to be a part of creating CORI, and welcomes all new teams, mentors and sponsors gearing up for the 2011 FIRST season!

You and your firm are invited to help shape the future! Learn more about supporting robotics for students nationally at and in Central Ohio at

(c) 2010 Ralston Consulting Inc.

About the Author: Ann is president of Ralston Consulting Inc. and a founding member of the Central Ohio Robotics Initiative.


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Date: Wednesday, December 11th, 2019 - 10:32:21am

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