FIRST aims to engage students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) by holding robotics and building competitions sponsored by the likes of LEGO, Lucasfilm, and Disney. Launched in 1989, FIRST now partners with more than 200 companies in the Fortune 500 and has 320,000 volunteers working with 650,000 students across 110 countries. I recently had the chance to chat with Erica Newton Fessia, vice president of field operations at FIRST, about their work.
Rick: So, what is FIRST?
Erica: FIRST was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the first portable insulin pump and many other innovative medical devices, who envisioned a world where young people dream of becoming leaders in science and technology as much as they do in sports and entertainment. Our mission is to inspire that interest by engaging young people in exciting team-based research and robotics programs that build well-rounded students with STEM capabilities and complementary life skills. FIRST teams complete our annual international challenges while operating under the FIRST Core Values, which encourage high-quality work, respecting the value of others, and helping each other while competing.
Rick: FIRST has some pretty high-profile partnerships, including with Disney, LEGO, Apple, NASA, Google, and more. How did you go about partnering with these iconic brands and how do these partnerships affect the work you do?
Erica: These partnerships are key to accomplishing our mission. With demand for technology and digital literacy skills growing, industry leaders increasingly recognize the critical need to develop STEM talent and to bring young people of all backgrounds into the workforce in order to close the STEM gap—the gap between the number of STEM jobs available and the number of those qualified to fill those roles, as well as the gender and racial gaps in STEM careers. Many of our partners also connect to our Core Values and the ways FIRST inspires collaborative, innovative, well-rounded global citizens. They see it in the talent and engagement of employees who are FIRST alumni.
With these partnerships, we’re able to expand and sustain access to STEM learning for more students. This includes providing additional scholarships and grants, providing funds for equipment, bringing our programs to new regions, and using employee volunteers to support team creation and events.
Rick: I understand you have multiple programs. Can you tell me a bit about what these are and how they work?
Erica: Essentially, our three programs are designed to engage students and build confidence in STEM at any level, and any student can get involved. FIRST LEGO League, which has three divisions by age group, is directed toward students in Pre-K through eighth grades and provides them with real-world problem-solving experiences through hands-on learning using LEGO technology. For example, this year our teams are finding new ways and places to play and stay active, so our FIRST LEGO League Explore teams in grades two through four are building and coding a LEGO Education WeDo 2.0—an award-winning LEGO kit that provides an easy-to-use programming set—to power a model of a LEGO device or robot that they designed. FIRST Tech Challenge is targeted for students in grades seven through twelve and teaches students how to design, build, program, and operate robots to compete in head-to-head challenges through an annual floor game that includes autonomous and driver-controlled elements. FIRST Robotics Competition is our flagship program for high schoolers. Larger teams of students build and operate industrial-size robots to compete in three-team alliances in an annual field game that challenges them to work together to move game pieces and earn points around a large field—it’s the only sport where every kid can go pro.
Rick: How does someone create a team for each of these programs?
Erica: Building a team is essentially the same across all programs: Recruit at least two team members and two coaches to help facilitate. We also offer “Class Pack” versions of our FIRST LEGO League and FIRST Tech Challenge programs that are designed for in-classroom learning for 30 or more students and multiple teams.
Rick: What are the costs for your participants?
Erica: FIRST believes that all kids need equitable access to opportunity, relevant mentorship, and engagement. While costs vary by program and level of participation, all costs are assumed by the team as a group. Registered teams receive access to FIRST fundraising tools and resources, including local, regional, and national grants and sponsorships provided by many corporations. Most teams’ registration costs are covered by their school and sponsors, and they may do additional community fundraising for supplies and travel fees, like many school sports and clubs. High-school-aged participants are also eligible to apply for over 80 million dollars in exclusive college scholarships that range from 500 dollars per year to four-year full-tuition scholarships, depending on the scholarship provider.
Rick: How do you all think about evaluating whether what you’re doing is successful?
Erica: We are committed to rigorously evaluating our programs to ensure we are advancing the FIRST mission. One big way we measure impact is through a rigorous longitudinal study conducted via Brandeis University on the impact of FIRST participation, which continues to show positive impacts on STEM-related interests and career paths six years after students enter our programs. Both male and female alumni declare majors in STEM at greater rates compared with their peers, with 69 percent of alumni declaring a college major in engineering or computer science by year three of college. For young women particularly, 79 percent of female alumni declare a STEM major, compared with 51 percent of their peers.
Rick: FIRST recently partnered with Disney, Lucasfilm, and LEGO to host a contest in which kids use LEGO bricks to create Star Wars holiday-inspired builds. The role of these powerful brands might lead skeptics to ask whether this is just a marketing ploy. How do you think about such concerns?
Erica: Our mission is to inspire and excite kids to explore STEM-related activities. When inspiration happens, education follows. Sponsors like Disney, Lucasfilm, and the LEGO Group play a critical role in helping to broaden awareness of FIRST to new audiences and increase access to our programs around the world. During a challenging year for all of us, especially students who saw their school year disrupted in many ways, we partnered with Lucasfilm and the LEGO Group to provide a fun family activity that also encourages kids to explore their creativity and use their STEM skills such as innovation, collaboration, and the engineering design process. Storytelling with Star Wars characters and building with LEGO bricks are engaging entry points for anyone to explore creativity and innovation and develop new skills.
Rick: What advice can you offer parents who want to help their kids stay engaged and motivated while they are learning from home?
Erica: Our education director recently shared some great advice that resonated with me as a parent: Be the lead learner in your home. Especially with STEM, we may not feel confident in our own skills—but we don’t need to have the answers. Embrace what you don’t know by asking questions and exploring the answers with your kids. Show them that STEM learning and fun can be found everywhere.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.