‘The hardest fun’: A high school robotics competitor shares why it’s such a big deal in the Seattle area

Members of the Issaquah High School Robotics Society. (Mason Maron Photo)

Editor’s note: Aedan Henry is an Issaquah (Wash.) High School junior and co-president of the Issaquah Robotics Society. GeekWire asked him to provide his perspective on why he’s drawn to robotics competition.

Right now, thousands of people from all over the Pacific Northwest are gathered in Tacoma, Wash., to watch high school teams compete. There’s loud cheering, colorful uniforms, and fast-paced gameplay.

No, this isn’t football. Nor is it basketball, track, soccer, baseball, or hockey.

It’s a robotics competition, a sport for the modern generation. And with the recent regional increase in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, it’s huge in the Seattle area.

I joined Issaquah High School’s team, the Issaquah Robotics Society, in ninth grade. Now, three years later, I’m the co-president of the club, and I’ve witnessed firsthand the incredible effects that the program has on its students.

Aedan Henry of Issaquah High School.

My team is part of FIRST, an international not-for-profit organization of student robotics clubs. FIRST has programs for all grade levels from kindergarten to senior year, but the Issaquah Robotics Society participates at the highest level: the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC).

Every year in January, we’re given a different challenge that our robot will have to undertake at competitions, usually involving manipulating objects like discs, cubes, or balls. We then have only six weeks to design, build, and program a 125-pound robot from scratch. It’s the single most intensive school experience of the year; I have to juggle almost nightly robotics meetings with school and homework. Over this period we spend upwards of 150 hours — including most weekends — in the school workshop laboring over laptops, wires, and metal. It’s like a part-time job without pay.

My non-robotics friends always balk at this time commitment. “150 hours? Voluntarily? Why?” But despite this, with more than 60 members, robotics is among the most popular clubs (and sports) at Issaquah High School.

So why do we do it? Well, FIRST’s motto is “More than robots,” because the program is worth so much more than the final product. It’s about experience, hard work, and collaboration. Robotics is consistently the best part of my day. Spending hours after school with close friends, geeking out about a shared passion-project — there’s nothing like it. FIRST founder Dean Kamen calls it “the hardest fun you’ll ever have.”

Robotics sucks you in. It sparks new ideas that become all-encompassing. We talk about it constantly. Robotics dominates thoughts and conversations because it’s more interesting and more inspiring than much of traditional high school. We spend our days with the monotony of schoolwork, and then the bell rings, and here’s this incredible program where we feel truly independent and professional.

When I started high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I decided to give robotics a shot because I had been hearing positive things about the club for years — it’s that well-known in Issaquah. And it’s easily been the best decision that I’ve ever made.

Teams and fans cheer in the stands at a robotics competition. (Reena Saxena Photo)

I started out learning about electrical engineering, then I began applying my interest in graphic design and marketing. Before long I was in charge of the team’s business and management: raising funds, contacting sponsors, developing our brand, and communicating with supporters. All the while, I was establishing a support network of friends and mentors. Now, not only do I have a clear idea of what I want to do after high school, I have the experience to take me there.

Robotics is the sport where everyone can go pro. Only a handful of high school football players make it to a college team, but every single FIRST student has the opportunity to enter the modern workforce. Issaquah Robotics Society alumni have gone to schools such as Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, and Purdue, and have joined companies including Microsoft, Expedia, Facebook, and Google.

Most high school clubs act as models of real-world careers: debate club models politics, DECA models small business, and Model UN models diplomacy. But robotics club puts a modern spin on this: it models a tech startup. Just like the companies springing up around Seattle, FRC teams have to fund, design, build, program, and promote a piece of technology. Nothing else creates the same degree of real-world experience. Nothing else gets close to this level of intensity, this level of authenticity.

Industry professionals know FIRST’s value, and they use it to create direct pipelines for FRC students into adult professions. Universities and Seattle-based tech companies have been known to directly look for FIRST involvement in applications. These organizations lend funds, volunteers, and materials to support FIRST teams and events, all with the goal of creating the next generation of employees. Real-world industry professionals volunteer to mentor us, providing practical knowledge of STEM that we can apply long after our senior year.

Issaquah High School students acted as mentors, showing off their large robot, as younger FIRST LEGO League students competed in the GeekWire Robotics Cup at the GeekWire Bash in Seattle last month. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

In Seattle, Boeing and Microsoft have been influential in developing FRC. They donate thousands of dollars annually to our club specifically, and hundreds of thousands to FIRST as a whole. There are almost 100 high school teams in Washington state alone due to the support of local tech companies.

The rapid expansion of FRC programs in Seattle creates a competition environment full of energy and collaboration. With edge-of-your-seat gameplay and constant cheering, the stands are always full of energy. In each match, two teams of three schools go head-to-head, and the match-ups are constantly shifting. So while competing with each other, we also work together on game strategy and robot repairs, developing an environment that we’ve coined “coopertition.”

This week’s competition, Thursday through Saturday at the Tacoma Convention Center, is the Pacific Northwest District Championships. (The event is free if you want to stop by.) Teams that do well there will go onto the world championships in Houston later this month.

But robotics is so much more than winning competitions. FRC is first and foremost a STEM advocacy program. To further this goal, teams take on community outreach projects. We bring FIRST to community festivals and introduce robotics to low-income areas. Other teams have created Special Olympics robotics programs and built prosthetics for the disabled. Our goal is to show everyone just how exciting engineering can be.

The ultimate end that I see FIRST working toward is breaking STEM education into the mainstream. Imagine a world where FIRST is well known, where competitive robotics is just as relevant as football, and where every student has the experience, social connections, and job prospects that come from FRC laid out in front of them, ready to be propelled into their future. That’s a world that I’ve seen during my time with robotics, and it’s a world that FIRST is moving us toward, one robot at a time.

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