Attracting more than 80,000 high school students comprising some 3,100 teams, the 2016 FIRST Robotics Competition began earlier this month. A nonprofit organization, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen to inspire in youths an appreciation of science and technology. The organization is based in New Hampshire, where it designs accessible, innovative programs to build “self-confidence, knowledge and life skills while motivating young people to pursue opportunities in science, technology and engineering.” As partners of FIRST, the Automation Federation and the International Society of Automation (ISA) are encouraging their members to support the range of FIRST education programs.

This year’s competition, FIRST STRONGHOLD, will pair students with adult mentors. The students will have six weeks to design, build, program and test their robots to meet this year’s engineering challenge. Boasting castles and obstacles, the challenge’s medieval setting will force teams to design robots that can break down their opponent’s defenses, cross barriers and capture the opposing team’s castle.

Held in Manchester, NH on Jan. 9, the kickoff event was broadcast live to the participating teams at more than 114 venues around the globe. The teams received a kickoff kit comprised of donated items and components—but only limited instructions. Once these young inventors develop their robots, the teams will participate in one or more regional or district event that measures the robots’ effectiveness and students’ determination and collaborative capabilities. Qualifying teams will compete for top honors at the 2016 FIRST Championship, which will take place April 27-30 in St. Louis, MO.

ISA and its umbrella organization, the Automation Federation, actively support FIRST’s multifaceted educational programs that help young people discover and develop a passion for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning and career pathways. “Fostering interest and enthusiasm among young people is critical to developing the next wave of automation engineers and technicians needed to meet the challenges of the future,” says Michael Marlowe, Automation Federation managing director and director of government relations. “Events like the FIRST Robotics Competition drive home just how exciting STEM   and automation-related learning can be for young people. ISA and the Automation Federation have immense potential to tap into this excitement and attract many more young people to our profession.”

Marlowe encourages all ISA and AF members to take a closer look at how they can get more involved in FIRST programs and activities. Last year, more than 200,000 volunteers (including mentors, coaches and judges) worldwide contributed approximately 16 million hours. The FIRST volunteer website outlines the various ways automation professionals can become involved.