The FIRST Robot Competition


The Transformers
In 1989, entrepreneur and Segway inventor Dean Kamen founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit designed to discover and nurture the scientists and engineers of the future. Since then, hundreds of thousands of young people (kindergarten through grade 12) have participated in FIRST programs in 40 countries. 

From April 16–18, 2009, some 10,000 students will gather in Atlanta's Georgia Dome for the 17th annual Robotics Competition, where teams bring their custom-built robots—everything from Lego-bots the size of an action figure to 130-pound contraptions that tower over their creators—to face off in engineering-based challenges. (This year, they'll play an elaborate basketball-meets-bumper-cars game called "Lunacy.") 

Although boys outnumber girls in the competition by about three to one, O checked in with members of three all-female teams, plus one proud alumna.


Team: The Firebirds
Hometown: Flourtown, PA 

Brianna Devenny, age 17 (front row, fourth from left): "Our robot has visited a home for seniors and did a walk to raise money for heart research. We've also helped form a robotics team in Ghana, and we’re collecting 'retired' robots from other FIRST teams to send to them. We hear the boys say, 'Oh, these girls didn’t do anything—their mentors probably built the robot for them.' But when it turns out that we know everything about it, they say, 'Oh, all right,' and walk away with their tail between their legs."


Team: The Fembots
Hometown: Sacramento, CA

Victoria Luckenbill, age 14 (second row, far right): "Math and science are my favorite subjects. Originally, I wanted to go into psychology, but then I started robotics and realized, 'Hey, I get to build stuff—yay!'"

Michelle Grau, age 17 (second row, third from left): "These competitions are the only times I see lines at the men's rest rooms and none at the women's."


Team: The Fire-Breathing Rubber Duckies
Hometown: Portland, OR

Tesca Fitzgerald, age 12 (front row, far left): "I wasn't very interested in technology before, but FIRST has inspired me to become a computer software engineer. I already know four different computer programs. Last year I found a way to enable the robot to read and write text files."

Taytlyn Fitzgerald, age 14 (back row, far left): "When I was only one of two girls on a team, it was hard. I spent that entire year sitting on a radiator watching the boys program the robot. Our coach said, 'Boys are the surgeons and girls are the nurses: You hand the boys the pieces to build the robot.' I knew better."


Alumna: Cynthia Botello, age 19
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ; here with her 2007 winning team

"I'm a sophomore at Arizona State University, studying to become a project engineer. I don't think I would have gone to college at all if not for FIRST. My high school was 96 percent Hispanic. Girls in our community aren't going to school, especially not for science and engineering. But once you get into FIRST, you see that it's fun. Before FIRST, I didn't even have any idea what an engineer was, but now I feel I can be successful in a male-dominated field—and I can inspire my younger sisters to stay in school."