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NZ school teams for international robot comp

For immediate release – 28 November 2007

New Zealand school teams to compete in major international robotics competition

New Zealand secondary school students will compete for the first time in an international robotics competition that, according to an American university study, doubles the likelihood of students choosing a science or technology related career.

The US-developed programme – called the FIRST Robotics Competition - now involves over 30,000 students from seven countries in an annual team competition with finalists attending a massive competition championship held each year in the US. Teams involve students, teachers, parents, community volunteers, business and universities.

The competition sees teams building a large robot (up to 55 kilogrammes and 1.52 metres) capable of competing in a game – which varies each year. Each team needs sponsorship and mentoring from corporate organisations, mentoring from tertiary institutions, as well as volunteer support from family and community.

Initiated by the Auckland Export Year 2007 Group, the FIRST New Zealand programme, enabling New Zealand student participation, is being developed and run by Smales Farm Technology Office Park and Massey University. Initial funding of $266,000 has come from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. The first $50,000 corporate sponsor, Glidepath Ltd. has been agreed.

At a launch function today at Auckland’s Smales Farm Technology Office Park details of the Robotics Competition programme were announced including objectives, management structure and a timeline of participation by Auckland secondary schools.

Present at the launch were FIRST Robotics New Zealand programme directors: Dr Diana Twigden, Smales Farm Technology Park Advisory Board chairman; Bill Smales, Smales Farm Technology Park Director; Professor Ian Maddox, Academic Director of Massey University’s Albany Campus; and Advisory Board member Alasdair Thompson, CEO of the Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association and a principal of the Auckland Export Year Group 2007.

Also present were school principals from Auckland secondary schools.

First Robotics New Zealand programme director Dr Diana Twigden said the programme would be piloted with Auckland secondary schools in the wider Auckland region in the first phase before being extended nationwide. The pilot phase would see at least 24 Auckland teams compete in a New Zealand Regional Competition in March 2009, with one or two winning teams participating in the international competition championship in Atlanta Georgia in April 2009. Programme training would take place during 2008, assisted by US FIRST programme instructors who will visit New Zealand, for July bootcamps and also host training sessions for a contingent of NZ secondary school students at the Atlanta Championships in April 2008.

She said that FIRST - For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology – was a unique and highly effective way of making science and technology fun for secondary school students. Competition teams have critical roles for students in design, build, computer programming, research, fundraising, budgeting, project management, and public relations. The programme is truly cross-curricula and enables students with many different skill sets to participate. Research conducted by Brandeis University, has tracked and quantified the positive impacts of the programme.

“The Brandeis study showed that - compared to a group of students with similar background and achievements in high school maths and science - FIRST graduates are twice as likely to major in science and engineering, significantly more likely to attend university (33 percent more likely) and more than twice as likely to develop a science or technology related career after university,” Dr Twigden said.

FIRST has been supported in the US for over 17 years by a strong network of corporations and educational and professional institutions. US corporate sponsors, including Xerox, Motorola, GM and DaimlerChrysler, are very enthusiastic about the programme. Companies also provide engineers and other staff as mentors and coaches. 95% of employees believe their company involvement with FIRST benefits the company’s reputation, and 66% believe support of FIRST helps attract and retain good employees.

Northern Employers and Manufacturers Federation chief executive Alasdair Thompson said EMA and the Auckland Export Year Group 2007 had initiated the FIRST Robotics Competition programme because it was a proven and practical way for business, the community and the education system to work together to address the strategic issue of how to develop a technologically literate workforce in science, technology, maths and engineering.

“In going beyond commodity production, and even in adding value to existing commodity production, New Zealand’s future depends on rapid growth in our technology skill base, Mr Thompson said. “This means more secondary school students choosing science and technology careers. The outcome we want is for more knowledge workers who can help bootstrap business to compete in the new global economy.”

Glidepath Ltd chairman Ken Stevens said his company had agreed to become the first corporate sponsor as a way of making a long term investment in potential Glidepath employees of the future.

“But I also like the whole ethos of the FIRST Robotics competitions,” Mr Stevens said. “It’s not just about Robots. It’s about life skills and a great focus for partnership between academia, corporates, schools and the community.

“The spirit of the FIRST competitions is ‘gracious professionalism’.
Fierce competition and mutual gain are not separate ideas. Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy but treat one another with respect during the process. It’s a great programme,” said Mr Stevens.

The First New Zealand programme directors acknowledged the critical support of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise in providing seed funding.

NZTE spokespersons Shirley Van Waveren said the establishment grant had come from the Enterprise Culture and Skills Activities (ECSA) fund.

“The ECSA Fund is a key component of the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) strategy to build a culture of business and enterprise in New Zealand. This involves promoting attitudes, values and skills that support entrepreneurial activity, business success in New Zealand and support and promote the concept of Education for Enterprise (E4E),” Shirley Van Waveren said.


Further Background

FIRST stands For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The FIRST Robotics Competition ‘combines the excitement of sport with science and technology to create a unique university level sport for the mind’.

Full details are available from the FIRST website at

Vision – to ‘create science and technology heroes’.
FIRST was founded by Dean Kamen, a US inventor, entrepreneur and advocate for science and technology. Kamen invented the first portable insulin pump, the first wearable drug infusion pump, the first portable kidney dialysis machine, and Independence 3000 IBOT, a wheelchair the climbs stairs and rough terrain.
His vision….”To create a world where science and technology are celebrated…where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes.”

The FIRST Robotics ‘game’
The FIRST Robotics competition has a new game challenge each year with real world engineering experiences required to build a robot capable of playing – and winning – the game. The basic robot parts are supplied by FIRST with each school team, comprising 15-30 students, …the most important thing in building the robot is that it must be able to play the game… In 2007 the robot had to play a game called Rack n’ Roll. In 2006 the robots played Aim High where they had to throw balls into high goals.

Teams involve students, teachers, parents, communities, business and universities.
By 2007 FIRST involved over 32,000 high school students with 1300 teams from seven countries. The FIRST competition model is for student teams to seek mentors (engineers from industry and universities), supporters and organisers from among parents and the wider community, and sponsors from participating companies, who can also provide mentors and hands-on technical assistance as well as financial assistance to fund the logistics of traveling to a local regional or national competitions, and then to the international championship in the United States. Over 2000 sponsoring companies participated in 2007, with up to 40 teams competing at 41 regional events.

Benefits and outcomes
As well as technological literacy students develop great teamwork and business skills. The interface between students, professional engineers, mentors, teachers, parents, community volunteers and corporate sponsors, have benefits for all parties. Research conducted by Brandeis University, tracking and quantifying the positive impacts of the programme, showed that compared to a group of students with similar background and achievements in high school maths and science, FIRST graduates are twice as likely to major in science and engineering, significantly more likely to attend university (33 percent more likely) and more than twice as likely to develop a science or technology related career after university. 80 percent of schools reported that FIRST involvement has contributed to the creation of new courses or the incorporation of robotics instruction into existing classes. Corporate sponsors, including Xerox, Motorola, GM and Daimler Chrysler, are enthusiastic as demonstrated by the very high percentage of corporate sponsors who continue their support over a long period of time. For Universities, a valuable source of coaches and mentors, a good mechanism is provided for identifying high performing science and technology students for scholarship recruitment as well as non-scholarship recruitment to science and technology courses.

Philosophy and Ethos
The Robotics competition has an ethos of ‘gracious professionalism’…it’s a way of doing things that encourages high quality work, emphasises the value of others, and respects individuals and the community’. There is the idea that fierce competition and personal and professional growth are not mutually exclusive. Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy but treat one another with respect and kindness during the process. They avoid treating anyone like losers.

Cross curriculum participation
Every student regardless of his or her scientific mathematic or technological expertise can participate and benefit. There are critical roles for students in design, building, computer programming, research, fundraising, public relations. This enables students to participate who have skills right across the curriculum spectrum.

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