STEM program highlights teamwork in action

Updated: 

Members of the Red Alert Robotics team are eagerly awaiting the Jan. 9 release of FIRST Stronghold – the 2016 competition guidelines video with the “rally your kingdom” battle cry disguised as a game hint. So is Charlie Kimball.

The Verizon IndyCar Series driver recently welcomed the robotics team from Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Ind., along with its elementary school and middle school counterparts, to the Chip Ganassi Racing Teams headquarters in Indianapolis to recognize its accomplishments and provide a look behind the scenes of motorsports technology.

The release of the video corresponds to the formal start of the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition season.

In just six weeks, the high school students will build, program and test robots with the guidance of adult mentors. The competition robot is constructed with the kit of parts provided by FIRST, and teams can purchase a select amount of other materials to construct the 120-pound robot that performs a multitude of tasks corresponding to the game. The Red Alert team’s budget for 2016 is $60,000.

In 2016, more than 3,000 teams comprised of 78,000 students from around the world will compete in FIRST Stronghold competitions.

Dubbed a varsity sport for the mind, FIRST robotics combines STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) applications and business practices in which a group of students is involved in the design and programming of the competition robot while other designated team members are tasked with marketing, media and fundraising.

Throughout the semester, problem-solving, organizational and team-building skills are honed.

“One of the really cool things about FIRST is it’s taken what was kind of a free-form robotics arena and created some structure and locked it straight into middle school and high school programs,” said Kimball, who acknowledged to the groups that he and some friends “attempted” to build a robot in high school in California. “You’re developing those STEM elements all through high school so that when these kids apply to an engineering school and put on their applications team captain or mechanical design captain of a state champion robotics team their application is going right to the top of the pile.”

Participating students are eligible to apply for nearly $22 million in scholarships from more than 200 colleges and universities. The culmination of the competition season -- the 2016 FIRST world championships -- will be held April 27-30 in St. Louis. The Center Grove High School team, the 2014 state champion, has qualified for the event two of the past four years.

The ball-tossing robot that Red Alert members used for a demonstration near the Verizon IndyCar Series cars of Kimball, reigning series champion Scott Dixon and 2004 champion Tony Kanaan commanded a crowd of team engineers and mechanics.

“It takes a lot of time and dedication from the students and the mentors,” said Mark Horne, a team mentor and Chip Ganassi Racing Teams electronics technician. “Almost every aspect of the business is represented – media, marketing, CAD design, engineering, programming, website design. It’s all-encompassing.”

FIRST was founded in 1989 to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology. STEM-related career opportunities, including in motorsports, are and will continue to be in demand worldwide.

“They have this structured directive to work toward, and it takes that much structure to go from ‘here are the rules’ to competing with a fully functional robot in six weeks,” Kimball said. “It takes a lot of hard work, and the understanding that it’s not just the students designing the robot, it’s the ones programming the robot, the ones doing the marketing plan and the media.

“In any corporate environment or any business sector, that understanding of teamwork and working to each others' strengths is so valuable that when they get to their first job they’ll be miles ahead just starting out.”

Charlie Kimball cutoutKimball attended a FIRST competition as guest of the Red Alert team, and was presented a “Make it Loud” award at the race shop in recognition of his support with his attendance at the event, tweets and carrying the Red Alert logo on his helmet in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April. The team brought a cutout of Kimball to one of its competitions this past season (left).

“It’s cool to see successful robots because one of the big things to me is the short time frame,” he told the students. “We get to work with the same race cars year in and year out and we’re always trying to make it better. You take nothing except a game guideline and create something that moves and scores and shoots and interacts with other teams’ robots.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence in teenagers, especially when I see them texting and driving. But I see these young people and I think we’ll be OK with the next generation.”

From the fans