Robotics Community FIRST® Inspires Students to Use STEM Skills for Global Good


Annual competition helps students from around the world develop both STEM and life skills.

Students building robots

There’s no shortage of global problems that need innovative solutions, but those fixes are coming from a surprising – or, not so surprising – place: kids and teens.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of students ages 4-18 from more than 110 countries come together to tackle tough, real-world problems through FIRST®, a global community that helps young people discover their passions for STEM through exciting, hands-on robotics-based challenges. These programs don’t only make kids into STEM whizzes: they help students simultaneously develop their interpersonal, problem-solving and collaboration skills. 

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is an education and career pathway which emphasizes the importance of these areas of study with the hope of increasing participation and job growth in related careers. In a rigorous annual competition filled with innovation, energy, and excitement, FIRST—the world's leading youth-serving nonprofit advancing STEM education—inspires diverse young minds across the world to solve a challenge related to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. 

“Our program teaches a concept called Gracious Professionalism®, which encourages high-quality work while emphasizing the value of others and respecting both individuals and community,” says FIRST CEO Chris Moore. “When we combine STEM skills, communication, problem-solving, and creativity through this lens, students emerge from FIRST as self-aware, socially-minded lifelong learners who understand their potential to make the world a better place through science and technology.” 

A global network of volunteers, educators, mentors, and sponsors (including 200 of the Fortune 500 companies) works together to support youth participants in this endeavor. After all, it’s these very companies who will compete for STEM talent in the future, so it’s in their best interest to keep the talent pipeline flowing. 

“Students of all backgrounds should have access to programs like FIRST,” says Jilei Hou, Vice President of Engineering at Qualcomm Technologies. “We all use technology and we all need to understand it to some degree—we need students with these skill sets to help move the world forward in a positive way. FIRST prepares these students for careers in STEM where they’ll have the opportunity to solve some of the biggest challenges we face as a society.” 

In 2022, FIRST students competed in robotics and research competitions within the challenge theme of transportation. In FIRST® LEGO® League, a FIRST program with several offerings serving students ages 4-16, participants develop solutions to real global problems under the annual program theme. Teams can submit their innovative solutions for the FIRST® LEGO® League Global Innovation Award presented by Qualcomm Incorporated, in which teams are selected to attend various design thinking workshops, learn about the patent and innovation processes, and compete for top honors. From innovative solutions in waste management and animal health to space duration and water cycles, past Global Innovation Award finalists have brought their inventions to market, received patents, incorporated as businesses, and taught innovation to their home communities. Hundreds of teams from around the world submitted ideas to improve transportation, in all its forms, in 2022. 

Cary, North Carolina-based team Darth Rappers is a 2022 FIRST LEGO League Global Innovation Award Finalist for its invention, “MILE’NIUM F.A.L.C.O.N.,” an autonomous mini-freezer on a drone.

During its research, the team learned that one third of the world has yet to receive the COVID vaccine and that the inequity is most stark in low-income countries, where 85% of the population have not yet received even a single dose. Transporting COVID vaccines and other medicines is difficult in these settings due to inaccessible roads, a lack of drivers, and an unreliable cold chain. Darth Rappers solved this problem with its autonomous drone, which includes a freezer and enables last-mile vaccine delivery to hard-to-access areas. 

The team, composed of four students (one each from grades 5–8), brainstormed ideas, facilitated interviews with experts, professionals, and potential users, and tested several iterations of their robotic freezer and drone. They collected and analyzed data, refined their invention, and ultimately presented thousands of hours of research during a five-minute pitch session to impress the judges.

“Our team has different goals, mindsets, and interests, but despite our differences, we work together well,” says Darth Rapper Ganapathi Pamula, 13. “Just as in any sport, working on the annual Innovation Project together is an intense team activity that helps us all hone our skills. Every year, we cannot wait for the challenge because we love brainstorming and building innovative solutions.” 

Witnessing students’ STEM skills grow in tandem with their social-emotional skills is satisfying (and inspiring) for the program’s adult mentors and sponsors, too. At the beginning of each season, both the robot and project can seem daunting. But as team members divide the work into manageable chunks—which strengthens their project management skills—put in the hours, and achieve milestones, they gain confidence in their ability to solve complex problems. 

“It is highly rewarding to throw an open problem to these kids and see how they innovate a solution,” says mentor Vamsee Pamula. “It was heartening to see almost an equal number of girls and boys working on their robots. I feel very hopeful about the future working with these curious, young minds and can’t wait to see the kind of future they unveil for us.” 

FIRST provides the STEM skills needed to help young people solve the planet’s most pressing problems by helping students take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to the real-world issues they want to see changed—empowering them to drive the solutions,” Moore says. “Too many students think they need to wait for their careers to start innovating or making a difference. Every student is capable of using STEM skills for good today, and the students who participate in FIRST are proof of this.”

To learn more about FIRST, please visit

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