Robotics Competitions Build STEM Skills

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Rocking with flashing lights, screaming fans and the sounds of crunching metal, FIRST Robotics competitions are borrowing the energy of traditional sports to inspire kids to innovate with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Through PwC’s sabbatical program, I recently mentored my son’s robotics team, and I found FIRST’s complex competitions are a sophisticated training ground to develop innovation skills that even the most senior executive can learn a great deal from.

The competitions are comprised of high school kids but they are certainly not child’s play. These fierce competitors design robots that duke it out in a 3-on-3 style match in a basketball court-sized arena.  The tight six-week design and build timeline forces teams to apply sophisticated agile, iterative work styles, multi-disciplinary teams and rapid prototyping. The engineering industry sponsors FIRST events in full force for recruiting purposes for a reason.  Not only do these kids understand how to solve problems, they build and hone their technical skills with CAD apps, lathes, CNC machines, laser cutters, 3D printers, microcontrollers, motors and pneumatic controllers.

In this pressure cooker environment with perpetual problems to solve and a multitude of technology to tinker with, there’s little time to second-guess yourself or fear failure. And you have no choice but to work with your team to leverage the diverse skills of the group to beat the competition. Forward and fast is the only option and failure is par for the course. My son’s team had to abandon their initial design, but they rapidly applied what they learned to a new prototype and emerged with a winning entry.

If you think about it each FIRST contest is a microcosm of what executives are experiencing in today’s digital age. Time has been compressed as the annual plan has turned into the quarterly plan. Disruptors are ripping through industries so competition has hit historic heights. There’s no time to fear failure and fret over returns on investment before you try something new. The ubiquity of technology demands constant attention whether you’re an engineer or not.

The kids that compete in FIRST competitions will enter the workforce in a few short years, and they will want to join companies that are adept at solving vexing problems and exploring and embracing emerging technology. Engineering companies have a lock on this talent, but in today’s digital age every company is a technology company and should be trying to woo these amazing students. If you want to attract tomorrow’s best technology talent, you should show them you know how to play the innovation game.

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