FIRST Robotics Dives into the World of STEAMworks

Steam power was one of the great inventions to come out of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the early 1800s, water and wind were the main sources of industrial power. But by 1815, you had steam power that was equivalent to 210,000 horsepower. Now, FIRST Robotics wants to take students back to the time when steam was king.

If you are unfamiliar with FIRST, it is a non-profit organization founded by Dean Kamen in 1989 to inspire and increase young people’s interest and participation in science. The acronym FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” FIRST promotes STEM by hosting annual robotic competitions; these are separated into four programs.

  • FIRST Robotics Competition (Grades 9-12)
  • FIRST Tech Challenge (Grades 7-12)
  • FIRST LEGO League (Grades 4-8)
  • Junior FIRST LEGO League (Grades K-3)

The competitions not only inspire students to build their own robots, but also provide more than $16 million in scholarship money.

This year’s competition is inspired by the steam power era. The FIRST STEAMworks competition challenges students to use robots in preparing airships for a long-distance race. Three individual teams comprise an alliance. Each match has two alliances battling head to head to build up as much steam pressure as possible. Each alliance will have three robots that collect “fuel” or balls and shoot them into the boiler. The more balls inserted into the boiler, the more steam pressure is produced. There are two entry slots in the boiler. The higher, harder-to-reach entry slot produces more pressure.

The second obstacle of the game is to complete the airship. Alliances will have to deliver gear parts to their airship. Team members on the airship collect the gear parts to complete the rotor assemblies. There are four rotor assemblies per airship. For the first 15 seconds of each match, the robots are autonomous. During the remaining time of the three-minute match, the team operators control the robots. The team with the most pressure and the most completed functioning airship wins. The video here offers a great explanation of the match and rules.

The competition was announced on January 9, 2017, and participants have until February 21, 2017—The Stop Build Day­—to complete their robots. The full schedule of matches can be found here.

FIRST is a great program that really is pushing kids toward engineering. It is recognized not just by academics, but also by the engineering industry. Rockwell Automation donated $12 million to the program to encourage kids into STEM. Part of the STEM gap is the lack of programs such as FIRST that push kids to think and create. Besides learning the basics of engineering, these students are also figuring out how to apply those engineering principals.

To support a local team, follow this link to find a FIRST Robotics team near you.

To support FIRST Robotics in other ways, please click here.


Discuss this Blog Entry 2

on Jan 24, 2017

Thank you for promoting this very worthwhile program! It is growing by leaps and bounds. I would recommend everyone find a team and/or event near you and check it out. You'll be glad you did.

on Mar 8, 2017

In the subject issue there is a news article about FIRST STEAMWORKS, and it gives the impression that the “Steam Age” is history. While the prevailing attitude is that the Victorian Era was the “Steam Age”, in fact the amount of steam power throughout the USA as well as the rest of the world is several times more than the steam power of the 19th century. A few years ago it was determined that 85% of all the world’s power was generated with steam engines, in the form of steam turbines driving electric generators. The recent closure of several US coal fired power plants, and the subsequent rise of Gas Turbine Combined Cycle plants (which only produce about one third of their total output as steam power) reduces the 85% number by a few percent , but steam continues to produce the great majority of power. The quantity of power produced with steam, during any year of the 21st century, is about 100x the power produced with steam in any year of the 19th century.

Electric generation with steam power today is so very much larger than the power production of all the electric generation, all rail locomotives, all steamships, and industrial steam power plants of the late 19th century. So, in fact, the “Steam Age” might be more appropriately assigned to the 21st century.

Fred Rosse

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