The final round of a FIRST Robotics Competition tournament is far less science fair and far more Final Four. Meredith Emerson, a junior electrical engineering major from Rochester, N.Y., has been competing in FIRST tournaments for seven years and still can’t get over the intensity, the crowd noise and the geeky exuberance of it all.
“People dress up as team mascots and make up elaborate cheers,” says Emerson, whose high school FIRST team was sponsored by Xerox. “I’ve seen people paint their chests, make crazy T-shirts and do even crazier things with their hair.”
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen to provide an exciting, hands-on introduction to engineering for kids from kindergarten through high school. Emerson and her teammates on Clarkson’s FIRST Robotics SPEED team serve as mentors for 35 kids from two local high schools who compete together as Team 229, code name Division By Zero.
Emerson is this year’s team leader, a position that requires a level of commitment bordering on obsession. When Emerson talks about getting her schoolwork done “in her spare time,” she’s only kinda sorta kidding. Emerson lives robotics, literally; for the past two years, she has resided on the Robotics Living Learning Community floor, where she’s also a mentor. When we talked to her over winter break, Emerson was in deep anticipation mode, anxiously awaiting the Jan. 8 announcement of the 2011 “game” during a kickoff event broadcast to tens of thousands of competitors worldwide.
In FIRST, the game is everything. It’s what fuels the frenetic six-week “build period” leading up to each competition. It’s what inspires, frustrates and helps participants learn how to solve problems quickly and creatively.
“It’s a really great way for engineering students to simulate engineering in the real world,” says Emerson. “You have a deadline. You have design specifications that they give you and a kit of parts to use.”
Last year’s game pitted alliances of three teams against each other in a futuristic, obstacle-ridden soccer match, but Emerson knows that this year’s game could be anything. In the past, game kits have involved PVC tetrahedrons, Rubbermaid containers and 40-inch-diameter balls.
“This is the time of year when you’re like, ‘Come on! I just want the game to come out!’ ” says Emerson, who hopes to coach the current squad past last year’s “quarter-final curse.”
In addition to overseeing the competitive high school team, the Clarkson FIRST Robotics SPEED team also mentors kids in other FIRST programs: Junior FIRST Lego League (kindergarten through third grade), FIRST Lego League (fourth through eighth grade) and FIRST Tech Challenge (ninth through 12th grade). Every fall, Clarkson hosts a huge FIRST Lego League and FIRST Tech Challenge competition on campus, a remarkable showcase of youth talent as well as an excellent promotion for Clarkson’s own stellar engineering program.
Summer is just about the only time when Emerson doesn’t live, eat and breathe FIRST robotics. Last summer, she landed an internship at SRC (Syracuse Research Corp.), a government contractor with headquarters in Syracuse and branch offices in 10 other U.S. cities.
Emerson didn’t hear about the internship through the annual Clarkson Career Fair. Instead, she met an engineer from SRC — another Clarkson grad — at the Coulter School’s Advisory Council Meeting. . Every year, Clarkson invites back successful alumni to meet with students and evaluate the career relevance of its academic programs. Based on the advisory council’s suggestions, Clarkson continuously updates its curriculum to best prepare graduates for immediate success in the workplace.
Emerson says the alumnus from SRC “liked the way I presented myself and asked if I wanted to interview for an internship.” Just like that! As an intern in one of SRC’s ESD-certified labs, Emerson got hands-on experience with advanced engineering concepts and lab equipment that she wouldn’t have seen until her next semester of classes. Having the extra leg up in her coursework, of course, meant even more time for robotics.
Emerson’s on-the-spot internship offer confirms what she has seen and heard from other Clarkson students and alumni: Employers know Clarkson, and they love to hire Clarkson graduates. Emerson credits the real-world intensity of the Clarkson academic experience, particularly in engineering.
“They don’t teach you to be lazy here,” she says. “You have to work hard, you have to learn quickly and you have to work in teams, whether you like the people you’re working with or not.”
Emerson has already accepted a summer internship with SRC for 2011. In the meantime, look for her at the FIRST robotics regional tournament in Boston. She might be the one with the purple mohawk.