How FIRST® and Zebra Are Cracking the Code to Getting Kids Engaged in STEM

Learn more about an innovative tool helping make robotics and programming more accessible.

The Virtual Robot Simulator
by Your Edge Contributor
April 04, 2022

This post was contributed by Jonathan Weiland, Director of Illinois FIRST® Tech Challenge.

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“Coding is today’s language of creativity. All our children deserve a chance to become creators instead of consumers of computer science.” – Maria Klawe

At FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), we seek to empower more young people to become science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals. As Zebra employee Tom Boehm has shared in previous blog posts, this is critical to preventing the STEM skills gap from widening.

Computer literacy is just as important and fulfilling as sports, music and other extracurricular activities. All teach cooperation and problem-solving, which are valuable skills that transcend any one environment. But with every item of value comes a price – and for too many, it’s prohibitive. Luckily, with support from our friends at Zebra, we’re taking steps to change this.

FIRST® Tech Challenge in the Virtual World

The Virtual Robot Simulator (VRS) is one of many free online tools helping to make coding and robotics more accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. While student robotics teams, software courses and hands-on engineering workshops provide ample opportunity for learning, these specific tactics are not always financially or geographically accessible. Use of the VRS allows for robot programming and testing with only two things: access to a computer and an internet connection – no physical hardware or mechanisms required!

The VRS is a simple, easy-to-use platform that captures the excitement of a real FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) tournament in a virtual world. Leveraging the Blockly library for the programming language JavaScript and a series of built-in lessons with instructions, the simulator enables participants to become beginner software engineers.

Zebra Technologies’ VRS Challenge

We invited Zebras and the children in their lives to participate in a VRS Challenge, a self-paced activity that introduced participants to FIRST while teaching them a how to code a robot to move autonomously.

Within the VRS platform, code is used to drive the robot, launch rings into a target, move game pieces around a field and ultimately score points – just like a real FTC tournament! Even the field is a direct replica from the FIRST® Tech Challenge Ultimate Goal season.

Hosted by myself and FIRST® student Spencer Nguyen, we kicked off the VRS Challenge with a webinar attended by more than 50 Zebra employees and kids. For the next couple weeks, participants navigated resources to learn and complete 10 lessons. Once the lessons were completed, they used their newly acquired skills to create 30-second autonomous robot runs and add their scores to our leaderboard. Everyone who added a score to the leaderboard was awarded a prize.

Of course, we hope that every child who participated in our challenge or uses the VRS in the future is inspired to continue coding and exploring the vast virtual world of problem solving. We also hope it’s a fun experience that leaves a positive, lasting impression.

At the conclusion of the challenge, we hosted a virtual showcase for participants to show off their highest scoring runs and speak about their experience using the tool.

 “This was an awesome experience. It was our first one, and thanks to you guys, it’s not going to be the last.” – Sailesh Jiandini, Senior Manager of Internal Audit at Zebra Technologies. Mehak, Sailesh’s 10-year-old daughter, participated in the challenge and earned the second highest score.

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Editor’s Note: Coming Soon

We’re thrilled to share that we’ll be operating our Zebra MotionWorks™ real-time location solution (RTLS) April 20-23, 2022, on a global stage – the FIRST® Championship in Houston, Texas.

Zebra has been using location solutions to track NFL player and ball movements during games and practices for the last eight years, providing coaches with actionable insights and fans with real-time Next Gen Stats. Most recently, the radio frequency identification (RFID) tech was used in Super Bowl LVI, the 2022 Reese’s Senior Bowl, the 2022 East-West Shrine Bowl, and the 2022 NFL Combine.

During the upcoming FIRST® Championship, FRC teams will benefit from the very same technology. Keep an eye on our Newsroom and Your Edge Blog for more information.

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Get Involved:

Are you familiar with Unity, the cross-platform game engine? FIRST® Illinois needs your help to further develop the Virtual Robot Simulator! Reach out to CSR@zebra.com and we’ll get you connected.

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Your Edge Contributor
Zebra will occasionally publish insights from members of our partner community, our customers and other subject matter experts across the global industries we serve on the Your Edge blog. Background information about each individual author can be found at the bottom of their contributed blog post.