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Students participate in a FIRST robotics event.

WPI/FIRST Partnership Dates Back 30 Years

Invaluable partnership has inspired and maintained a pipeline of inspiration and learning

October 7, 2022

When Dean Kamen, a celebrated innovator and WPI alumnus, decided thirty years ago to create an annual robotics competition for high school students, one of the first universities he approached for help was his alma mater, a leader in project-based STEM education.

In the three decades since, WPI and FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) have been working together to sow the seeds of innovative STEM education around the world.

A Pipeline of Inspiration and Learning

Twenty-eight teams—including a local team of Doherty Memorial High School students mentored by WPI students and faculty—competed during the inaugural FIRST robotics competition. Today the event draws more than 3,500 teams from every state in the country. The WPI-sponsored team is one of only nine that have participated every year.

“It turns out to be a wonderful experience for our student mentors because they get a chance to actually use engineering lessons that they’ve learned in an academic environment,” says Ken Stafford, an emeritus teaching professor and former director of the university’s Robotics Resource Center. Each year about 10 WPI students work closely with the team of high school students, who now come primarily from the Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science, and Colleen Shaver ’04, ’08 (MS), the current director of the Robotics Resource Center.

The benefits extend far beyond those 10 WPI students, though.

“It’s about building globally and socially conscious individuals who understand that the drive of competition should never overwhelm the strength of cooperation. It’s also about understanding the value of diverse ideas and working toward building inclusive teams that can amplify voices not traditionally heard in STEM communities.” -Colleen Shaver

High schoolers who participate in the robotics competition learn basic engineering skills while collaborating to create a functioning industrial-size robot in seven weeks. Along the way, they get opportunities to solve problems in real time, become familiar and comfortable with technology and software, and challenge themselves … all while having fun.

From the very first competition, Stafford says, “WPI understood, smartly, that this was a wonderful feeding system for the kind of students we want. Folks that are involved with FIRST are innovative, creative team players. They’re all the things we would like to see in our own students.”

Last year, approximately 8% of all WPI undergraduate applicants listed FIRST as an activity, and 14% of the enrolling class participated in FIRST, according to Jennifer Cluett, executive director of admissions.

Students with FIRST experience end up choosing a range of academic majors at WPI and therefore enrich the entire university community. Still, Brad Miller, senior fellow for WPI’s Global STEM Education Initiative, says that the robotics program at WPI is stronger thanks to FIRST. Miller notes that about half of WPI’s robotics engineering majors now start their undergraduate studies with high school robotics experience.

FIRST Things First

A FIRST participant follows a competition on a computer screen.
Students work on a small robot inside the Innovation Studio.
WPI regularly hosts FIRST competitions in Harrington Auditorium.
A photo of a small robotic basket with WPI on it.

Investing in STEM Innovation

In 1997, the university became the first in the world to create a scholarship for FIRST alumni. Dozens of colleges and universities have followed suit, but WPI’s FIRST Scholarships remain among the most generous.

Each year WPI offers two full-tuition, four-year undergraduate scholarships to a FIRST participant. One award recognizes design innovation; the other celebrates the leadership and vision of a student from a group that is traditionally underrepresented in STEM. Last year 141 students applied for the two scholarships.

In 2000, WPI began hosting BattleCry@WPI, an off-season FIRST competition that lets teams use the robots they created earlier in the year to face off one more time. The event draws more than 1,000 high school students to campus each year.

Many younger students first learn about WPI when they participate in the FIRST LEGO League Challenge, a STEM program that invites those ages 9–14 to research a theme such as space, oceans, and energy and then use LEGO robots to complete missions related to the theme. WPI hosts the annual Massachusetts championship, as well as qualifying events and other activities for teams across the state.

“You can bring technology to people, but that’s not really sustainable. What we want to bring to people is education. We want kids to become engineers and scientists so their countries can grow on their own, without outside support.” -Brad Miller

Shaver points out that all the FIRST programs, but especially the FIRST LEGO League, teach young people about far more than robots. “It’s about building globally and socially conscious individuals who understand that the drive of competition should never overwhelm the strength of cooperation,” she says. “It’s also about understanding the value of diverse ideas and working toward building inclusive teams that can amplify voices not traditionally heard in STEM communities.”

Global STEM Initiatives Taking Root

Drawing students into STEM is critical to WPI’s mission to revolutionize STEM education and confront global challenges. One of the ways WPI is working toward that goal is by partnering with FIRST Global, an international offshoot of FIRST that holds an annual robotics competition with one team from almost every country in the world.

Kamen asked WPI to become a founding member of the FIRST Global Higher Education Network, a community of STEM educators from top colleges and universities around the world who agree to work closely with the FIRST Global Challenge team from their nation. For the inaugural challenge in 2017, WPI supported teams all over the world through remote coaching. The university also sent student volunteer groups to the FIRST Global competitions in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

At this year’s challenge in Geneva, WPI and DEKA (a research and development company founded by Kamen) will provide each team with a compact and affordable kit to build a robot. WPI manufactured the kits in the campus makerspace and developed curriculum to help teachers around the world introduce basic robotics technology to students in their home countries.

“The hope is that each team mentor will reach out to other teams or schools in their countries to enhance STEM education by using these robot kits,” says Miller. “You can bring technology to people, but that’s not really sustainable. What we want to bring to people is education. We want kids to become engineers and scientists so their countries can grow on their own, without outside support.”

The Road to Geneva

WPI is in Geneva, Switzerland October 13-16, 2022 for the FIRST Global Challenge and XPrize ESG Leadership Summit. During the challenge, WPI will unveil the XRP (Experiential Robotic Platform), a groundbreaking, low-cost robotics system developed with DEKA Research and Development Corp. to give students around the world hands-on access to robotics education and initiatives. Read about how and why in the stories below.