Mentoring for FIRST -

Some companies have "give back to the community" programs where employees can do helpful things with their time, on company hours, within reason.

For example, Rackspace's "Rack Gives Back" (RGB) initiative lets Rackers contribute time to community related initiatives. Any and all Rackspace employees can be part of RGB - they simply need to coordinate it with their supervisor to ensure they continue to do well at both their jobs and their community initiative.

I applaud them for having this "RGB" initiative. It lets one balance involvement in the community with a career.

Tech experts have a unique opportunity to be extremely effective with their time - a good tech mentor can help young children excel in "STEM" - technical fields - going forward.

That's what mentoring for FIRST is all about - getting youngsters comfortable with building working robots, programming the robots, and most importantly, working as a team to reach their common goal.

I won't go into much detail about FIRST - you can read about it here: I'll just say, if your faith in the future is waning, you should check out what these teams of young roboticists are doing. It's truly humbling to be part of this effort.

Committing an hour and a half, once a week, to help teach 4th and 5th graders might sound a bit crazy. I can understand... it IS a little crazy. But, it's that "crazy wonderful" kind of crazy, that makes all the difference.

Playing with LEGO

When was the last time you played with LEGO blocks? For me... it was about an hour ago. LEGO Mindstorms robotics kits are awesome. I have more than a few kits, mostly because once I'm done building a really cool robot, sometimes I don't want to take it apart to build something else. They're addictive, and they've come a LONG way since LEGO's early forays into robotics. LEGO "Technic" beams, pins, axles, and elements are "next generation" LEGOs which can be used to build solid, working robots. The traditional studded block type LEGOs are sometimes useful, but are seldom integral parts of Mindstorms robots.


If you think these are just "toy robots" and not full-blown robotics kits, hopefully the following will help change your mind. Here's a partial list of the various LEGO Mindstorms sensors.

accelerometer gyroscope ultrasonic
touch light color
rotation microphone temperature
flex pressure thermal infrared
There are more, from the "OEMs" that produce the sensors for LEGO. Think Wifi, EOPD GPS, etc. With sensors like those, LEGO robots can do some pretty amazing things!

Some of the uses aren't immediately obvious. For example, an obvious use of a color sensor would be to sort parts that are placed in front of it, by color. Red to the left, blue to the right. However, another innovative use of the color sensor is as a ""mode selector" - place a green element in front of the sensor, and the robot might dance. Show it a blue element, and it might go into "search and destroy" mode, and show it a red element for it to be a stationary sentry-robot that'll alert any time it sees motion. The possibilities are endless.

The mentor role involves helping the kids to understand what they're doing - not just duplicating a program example, but understanding what it's doing. Showing them one or two innovative and unexpected ways to use sensors will start their brains thinking about thousands of other ways these components can be used together.


The LEGO Mindstorms motors are oddly shaped, but as a result they have precise, down-to-the-degree control of position. They're also geared to be able to handle some pretty good torque. Also, with converter cables, the Mindstorms controller can control power levels (but not with positional accuracy) on the more common LEGO Power-Functions motors.

Mindstorms motors can be queried for a rotation reading. That means you can use the motor itself as a sensor - again, either as a domain sensor (how far was a bar pushed by some object) or a control sensor (think along the lines of a gas pedal). Here as well, a mentor can help with the ideas and program designs utilizing positional feedback. One quick example - "stall stop" - you can program the robot to stop pushing the motor if it has stalled This can be very useful in some cases.


The Mindstorms controller has a small pixel-addressable black-and-white display, a rudimentary built-in speaker, and built-in bluetooth, so it can communicate with other controllers, PCs, and smartphones.

The opportunities these functions give a mentor are many - showing the students how they can debug their programs using sounds, or displaying values on screen, or "logging" to a PC via bluetooth.

NXT-G Programming

LEGO's NXT-G visual programming language, a kid-sized version of the venerable LabView environment, is a pleasure to work with. To program, you drag and drop "Virtual Instruments" onto a "sequence beam", then hook up their inputs and outputs - "wiring" them. NXT-G allows multi-threaded programming in a VERY understandable way. All in all... an outstanding robotics development, that's also kid-friendly.

Once the students grasp the structure and function of a Mindstorms program they can do wonderful things. But, it's a bit of a hill to climb. The mentor role involves helping the students understand sequence beams, loops, wiring, etc.

How you can help

If you have any experience at all with NXT-G, PLEASE consider helping out with the FIRST initiative. If you need a bit of help with the esoteric parts just let me know. Every bit of assistance we can provide will impact how well our schools will compete at FIRST.

It's an absolute pleasure to help youngsters over the various hurdles that crop up when building and programming a robot. You can almost see the gears turning in their brains, as they start to understand the implications of what you're showing them.

Contact your HR team to find out how you can be a part of FIRST.


A few years back, I gave one of the toughest presentations of my life. I had 20 minutes maximum, with a room full of 4th and 5th grade students with looks on their faces that basically told me they had to pee. But I got their eyes forward and on me for just long enough to get them engaged. I helped them understand the basics of a running program. I showed them, step by step, what a "control loop" was, by modeling the pieces of it and having a different student do each piece. I could see from the looks on their faces as they started to "get it" - and that made it all worth it in an instant.


I know I'm not alone - that there are others out there who can explain things clearly, want to help, who have both the time and the funds to be able to master these robot kits and help these kids out. So... if you're reading this, and robots are your thing, and helping is your thing, well then... hook up with FIRST and you might find yourself in a nearby gradeschool every second wednesday of the month after 5pm, with young minds ready to absorb your advice.

Topic revision: r4 - 2016.03.22 - PaulReiber
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