Q: My daughter, a freshman, wants to join her high school robotics club. She struggles with math, so I don't know if she'll find it too hard. What are the benefits of a club like that?
A: Listing all the benefits would exceed this column's word limit! Encourage her to go for it. Her math skills will improve just by being part of the team.
It's likely that your daughter's high school participates in the FIRST Robotics Competition, an international program that organizers call "sport for the mind" and "the hardest fun you'll ever have." Each year, student teams raise funds, design a "brand," hone teamwork skills and -- following precise rules and using limited time and resources -- build and program robots to perform prescribed tasks in a series of competitions.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by prolific inventor Dean Kamen.
"The nation's employers and policymakers were worried about the decline in the number of students taking rigorous science, technology, engineering and math courses," notes Laura London, who worked on the launch of FIRST's competition. "Dean Kamen decided to act. He created a fun, challenging and rewarding program that really draws students in. It's a spectacular success."
FIRST has also created programs for middle and elementary schools.
Most FIRST teams have about 25 students who work collaboratively to solve a design challenge that changes each year. Teams compete regionally, nationally and internationally.
"The competitions are a rollicking good time," says London. "Teams who have worked day and night on their robots are as psyched for the 'game.' Parents, teachers and coaches cheer themselves hoarse on the sidelines."
While building a winning robot is the goal, collaboration and teamwork are key parts of the experience.
"You compete like crazy, but help each other out," says physics teacher Patrick Freivald, the popular leader of Naples, New York, high school squad the Grapes of Wrath. "Once, a team we were about to play destroyed a transmission. They put out a request on the loudspeaker for a replacement. Within the next several minutes, we and at least four other teams showed up with spare transmissions."
Mentors with a range of skills advise the team, but don't take over the project, says Freivald.
"There's a lot of work and it's not all technical," he explains. "Teams not only build robots. They have to raise funds, write proposals, do publicity to engage the community and promote the events, and plan travel to the competitions. Your daughter will find plenty of opportunities to shine."
Are the educational benefits worth the tremendous effort? "Absolutely," insists Freivald. "Dollar for dollar, minute for minute, FIRST is a terrific educational experience.
"Not only do team members learn technical skills such as welding, CAD (computer-aided design) and assembly, they also stretch their minds to tackle a tough problem with not enough time, people or resources, and they do it magnificently. Along the way, they learn marketing, public relations, fundraising and entrepreneurship."
(The 2015-16 competition is now underway. For more information, go to usfirst.org.)
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)