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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

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Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics

High School Robotics and the FIRST Program Grant Imahara


Grant Imahara interacting with FIRST students at the FIRST Championships in St. Louis, MO.

Recently, I had the opportunity to accompany Mouser Electronics to the FIRST World Championships in St. Louis, MO. FIRST (which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”) is an international robotics competition for high school students. They spend six weeks designing and building a robot that will perform some task; like scooping up soccer balls and putting them into a goal. The game changes every year, so you always have to start from scratch.


It was a sort of homecoming for me, because over a decade ago I was a FIRST mentor for Richmond High School in Richmond, CA.




Maybe you don’t recognize Richmond High School. Not many people would. But perhaps you recognize the 1995 basketball movie Coach Carter, starring Samuel L. Jackson. He plays a basketball coach who returns to his alma mater (a tough inner-city high school) to lead his players to victory through his unique blend of discipline and uncompromising focus on academics. Well, Coach Carter is indeed a real person, and his alma mater, Richmond High School, is the very same school I mentored at. And it was indeed a tough inner-city school, the kind with metal detectors on every door.


At the time, I was working in special effects at Industrial Light and Magic on Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones. As an animatronics engineer, I’d worked on both R2-D2 and The Energizer Bunny. I successfully competed in BattleBots and was writing a book for Wiley Publishing on fighting robots. I knew robots, and I’m pretty sure that this is why the ILM Community Outreach Coordinator called me to help this “struggling inner-city robot team” with “maybe an hour a week”.


I agreed to meet with the team and their program administrator and discovered that there were no mentors, no parental involvement, and most importantly, no teachers helping out, all of which are crucial to a team’s success.


Resources at the school were limited. The teachers had to bring their own chalk to their classrooms. They asked why we were participating in this “rich kid’s sport”. To be fair, it was a steep $5000 to enter, but that fee was paid for by generous local corporate sponsors, and it bought almost all the supplies you needed to participate.


We didn’t have our own space to build the robot. We had to borrow a classroom for each build session. Imagine coming in to work, having to clear away a space, doing your work, and then cleaning up, putting everything back exactly the same way as you found it. Now factor in the messy business of building robots. We, like a tribe of nomadic builders, had to do this every single day.


It was important to me that I do as little work as possible. By that, I mean that I made the students build everything. Boys, girls, whoever showed up. I made them all go through mandatory tool orientation. My approach was to treat them like “of course you can”.


“Really?” they said, “You want me to do this?”

I replied, “Yes, of course. You can and you will.”


A “couple of hours a week” turned into a couple of hours a day, which turned into EVERY day, including weekends. We poured our blood, sweat, and a few tears into the robot the students named “Robzilla”.


The parents started to notice a change in their kids and began cooking food to send along to the meetings. Siblings often showed up just to find out what their brother or sister had been talking about so much at home.


After that all-too-short six weeks, we shipped the robot off to the Silicon Valley Regional.




The Silicon Valley Regional is where most of the biggest and best FIRST teams on the West Coast come to play. Many of them had been doing this for a number of years. Although it was intimidating at first, everyone fostered an esprit-de-corps in the pits, so it quickly became very welcoming.


How did we do? Well, we were a first-year team from the hood. We didn’t do great. We placed something like 48 out of 50. But at least we weren’t dead last. In the pits, I gave them the whole speech about how it was an achievement just to make it to competition even though no one thought we would (it was) and how they should remember our struggle (which we did, a lot). We gave ourselves a round of applause and packed up the robot for shipment home. We joined the rest of the teams in the stands, because it was time for the big awards ceremony.


We watched the top-place finishers get their trophies and clapped along with the others, even though I could tell the kids were disappointed (“gracious professionalism” is one of the basic FIRST tenets).


Then they started to give out the special awards. FIRST does this great thing where they don’t immediately announce the winner. They write a brief description of the team and the reason why they’re getting the award. It’s kind of a guessing game that builds excitement. The awards have all kinds of specific categories like safety, creativity, and engineering. And then there’s the Judge’s Award, which is given out to a team that displays “unique efforts, performance, or dynamics”.

They described a scrappy team with limited resources. A few of our kids perked up. And then they started to list the features of a robot very similar to ours in detail. Excitement spread as the kids looked at each other and asked, “Are they talking about us?” I shrugged my shoulders and continued listening. They announced our school and the students literally jumped out of their seats and hugged each other. We went up to get our medals and our very own trophy, and as we sat down, one of the students leaned over to me and said beaming, “I feel like I just won a Grammy.”


A few weeks after the regional, the principal wanted to meet with me. She said that usually, when she saw Richmond High School in the news, it was about violence or dropouts or drugs. Except for our little robot team. It was the one shining spot of positive news. And then she asked me the magic question: “What do you need?”




Although I have since moved away from the Bay Area and am no longer able to mentor the team, Richmond High School continues to build robots and compete in FIRST. Many of the mentors now were my students.


On the surface, mentoring students in robotics is an activity where you impart your knowledge. What I found was that in reality, it’s a process where my students teach me so much more than I could ever teach them. We weren’t just building robots. We were building futures.

Click here to see how Mouser teams up with FIRST® to inspire tomorrow's engineers.

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Well known in the engineering community, Imahara has paired his engineering expertise with a Hollywood TV and film career. In addition to his roles on Mythbusters and Battlebots, Imahara is the inventor behind many famous robotic characters - including the Star Wars prequel-era R2-D2, The Late Late Show's Craig Ferguson sidekick -Geoff Peterson, the talking robot, and the rhythmic arms on the modern day Energizer Bunny. Up to his untimely and tragic death Grant was Mouser’s beloved spokesperson and brand ambassador who shared Mouser's passion to positively influence and support innovative design. 

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