FIRST (which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded by inventor Dean Kamen and MIT professor Woodie Flowers back in 1989, before most students now applying to MIT were even born. The goal of FIRST, broadly speaking, is to inspire students towards a lifelong devotion to science, technology, and engineering.
FIRST works something like this: every year, in January, a star-studded team of engineers on the Game Design Committee unveil that year’s game to the 37,000+ students on 3,000+ teams in 12 countries worldwide. The games change every year, but always certain things remain the same: two alliances of three robots each compete against each other on a small, enclosed field, roughly the size of a small basketball court. The robots are based off of common kits to which teams add their own modifications and designs (subject to a sort of “salary cap” meant to mitigate economic, rather than engineering, advantages). Teams then have six weeks to conceive, design, and build their robots, which are then sent out to at least one of 57 Regionals across the world. Then, at Regionals, they’ll compete against a field of dozens for the chance to qualify for the Championship Event in Atlanta.
But the competition isn’t the point of FIRST, or rather, it’s a means, not an end. The point of FIRST is, in the words of Wikipedia, to “promote a philosophy of teamwork and collaboration among engineers and encourages competing teams to remain friendly, helping each other out when necessary”, in addition to getting students excited about science and technology.
And boy, do they get excited. Trust me, you haven’t seen excited until you’ve seen 6,000 students in an arena, dressed and painted in their team colors, banging away on noisemakers, screaming themselves hoarse with chants, with every emotion they have riding on the backs of the robots they’ve built. I’m not posting a competition video here because a grainy 480×360 video can’t do it justice – you need to go to a regional event and see for yourself.
FIRST might just be the best opportunity for aspiring techies to learn not just how to wield a soldering iron but how to interact with others in the spirit of “gracious professionalism.” The spirit of “coopertition” that FIRST inculcates among its participants characterizes the MIT campus spirit too – students working hard, working smart, collaborating well, and tempering their technical, interpersonal, and leadership skills under a healthy, educational, and beneficent duress.
Perhaps that’s why – as Woodie said at Kickoff – 1 in 9 MIT students participated in FIRST in high school. That’s not to say that FIRST is a prerequisite for admission, or that it gives you a dispositive advantage in admissions (after all, invert that statistic and you’ll see that 8 of 9 MIT students didn’t participate in FIRST). What FIRST does is help inspire students to pursue careers in engineering, science, and technology; to endow them with the time-management and prioritization skills that will make them successful competitors in any field; and to develop in them the collaborative spirit that will make them a success in any interpersonal endeavor.
These characteristics are shared by many great students, and thus many great MIT applicants, and so the subset of students who participate in FIRST and those who enroll at MIT intersect comparatively often. To use the language of formal logic, FIRST is not a necessary condition for admission to MIT, but excellence in FIRST (as demonstrated best by letters of recommendation from mentors and/or examples of engineering work) may be sufficient to show us some of what you’ve got to offer.
So what does FIRST have to do with this Kelly Clarkson song?
First, when it dropped in 2004, I was a subteam captain and the spirit leader (which is sort of like cheerleader, only much geekier) of Team 1073 during my personal favorite FIRST game. After graduating, I continued to mentor the team throughout college. Now, I am, to the best of my knowledge, the first FIRST alumnus to be an MIT Admissions Officer. So the date on this song makes me more than a little nostalgic. I did a lot in high school – football, newspaper, theater, skiing – but all these years later FIRST remains the best thing I ever did, because it taught me all the skills I outlined above. I didn’t even pursue science or engineering in college, but I am far and away the better for my FIRST experience.
Second, and more importantly, the song shares the title of this year’s game: Breakaway. Here’s the animation describing the game, created by NASA’s Dave Lavery, posted to YouTube by Team 801:
For those of you who are seniors, I know the excitement and stress of applications season has been inexorably followed by the excitement and stress of FIRST season. Let me give you some advice, bad news first. Bad: your college application season will not go perfectly. No matter how good of a student you are, no matter how polished your application, some irreconcilable tension will remain. Good: your FIRST season CAN go perfectly, because the point of FIRST is not to win or lose, the point of FIRST is to develop all the skills I mentioned above, because they will help you be successful no matter where you go and no matter what you do.
Come to think of it – why are you still reading this blog? Isn’t there a robot that needs building? That crate won’t pack itself! Good luck, and see you at the championship!