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World’s largest robotics programme for young people kicks off in the UK, supported by Bloomberg

Officially launching in the UK by tech charity FIRSTⓇ UK, the global competition seeks to make STEM less intimidating, more accessible and diverse


Leading tech charity FIRST UK has launched the UK’s first official FIRST Tech Challenge. Born out of a global movement, the UK programme will see teams of 10-15 young people aged 12-18 design, build and programme a robot to complete a Star Wars-themed challenge over the course of the academic year. At the end of the 2019-20 season, up to 2,000 young people will compete at London’s Copper Box Arena with five teams progressing to represent the UK at the FIRST World Championships in Detroit, USA.

The FIRST Tech Challenge programme was established to address the skills gap, increase social mobility, and build aspirations in STEM careers. It provides a platform for young people to think, operate and collaborate in industry-specific roles. After a successful pilot in 2018, the programme is expanding nationwide and will support up to 200 teams from secondary schools and youth groups across the UK.

The official industry launch event was held at Bloomberg’s European HQ in London last week, attended by leading figures from across industry, government, civil society and philanthropy. Bloomberg has been a global supporter of the FIRST programmes since 2004, harnessing its team of leading engineers to offer mentoring on core skills, from programming to problem solving, and is now supporting FIRST UK.

Speaking at the UK launch, FIRST UK CEO, Ed Cervantes-Watson said, “We’re building more than robots. We’re building a diverse, and inclusive pipeline of young people equipped with the technical knowledge and soft skills they will need to take on tomorrow’s challenges. We must support our educators with industry role models to bridge the gap between the workplace and the classroom – to prepare young people for tomorrow’s jobs, many of which don’t yet exist.”

“It’s extremely rewarding to see Bloomberg Engineers inspiring and mentoring tomorrow’s scientists and technologists. We are proud to expand our partnership with FIRST UK to help reach talented students across the country. The young people in this programme will use the skills and experiences to grow up and change the world. It’s incredible to be even a small part of that”, said Tom Rushall, Bloomberg London’s Head of Engineering.

Addressing the UK’s engineering gap

According to EngineeringUK’s annual report, over 203,000 engineers are needed each year to meet the nation’s growing demand, with an annual shortfall of 83,000-110,000 also echoed across the STEM sector. whilr report a lack of diversity and skills feeding the pipeline is harming the UK’s ability to remain globally competitive.

Speaking at the launch event, Professor Louise Archer, Karl Manheim Professor of Sociology and Education, UCL, highlighted that a “worryingly large percentage – 27 percent – of young people in the UK have low ‘science capital’”. That is the knowledge, skills, attitudes and experiences which lead young people to pursue STEM careers or not.  Professor Archer stressed that increasing accessibility with STEM enrichment activities can help to bridge this divide and build science capital.

FIRST Tech Challenge UK was born from the FIRST movement in the USA, founded in 1989 by Segway inventor and entrepreneur, Dean Kamen. In 2018, the record holding robotics competition saw 570,000 young people take part in multiple FIRST programmes globally. FIRST is proud to report that 75% of participants are in STEM education or careers today.

The programme’s success is partly driven by its wide range of industry partners. FIRST UK is proudly supported by leading STEM organisations, which help young people build aspiration and awareness of STEM careers. The programme also teaches participants a range of transferable in-demand skills such as leadership, project management and complex problem solving.

FIRST Inspires Founder, Dean Kamen said, “We’re very excited about the phenomena of growth we’ve witnessed over 30 years in the US. But it’s now happening at a much faster pace in the UK. If the growth continues the way it has, then I suspect over the next couple of years the UK will have the highest density of FIRST teams anywhere outside of the United States”.

What to expect this season

The season kicks-off this week and will run until May 2020. Teams will meet weekly and receive support from an industry mentor. Regional tournaments will take place in January and February as teams compete in alliances and present to win awards from product design to community outreach. The top 100 teams will progress to the UK National Championships at the Copper Box Arena in London’s Olympic Park in March, while five award-winning teams will earn a place to represent the UK at the FIRST World Championships in Detroit in May.

In partnership with Disney’s philanthropic initiative Star WarsTM: Force for Change, this year’s theme is ‘FIRST RISE: The Force is Building’, tasking teams to innovate in the built environment. The FIRST Tech Challenge game, SKYSTONETM challenges teams to build a sustainable city that’s out of this world.

Already supported by many Bloomberg engineers and other industry talent, FIRST Tech Challenge UK’s community of dedicated mentors and event volunteers – known as ‘Game Changers’ – are the engine behind the programme, investing their time and energy to support teams throughout the season. FIRST UK predicts that on average, every young person taking part will gain 60 contact hours with industry figures and will automatically receive Industrial Cadets Accreditation.

There are still places to register a team for this season with funded kits available to help all young people take part. Contact FIRST UK to register a teamvolunteer as a mentor, or help out at events.

Founded by British entrepreneur and philanthropist Vikrant Bhargava, FIRST® UK is a charity fuelled by robots and industry mentors – empowering young people to explore, challenge and grow into innovators who will take on tomorrow’s challenges. FIRST UK exists to make STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) less intimidating, more accessible and diverse – using robots and role models to fuel a talent pipeline of young innovators. Its vision is to create a world where young people are aware of the career opportunities available through STEM education and are equipped with the technical knowhow and critical soft skills to take on tomorrow’s challenges. FIRST UK is proud to be supported by leading technology corporations: Arconic Foundation, Arm, Baker Hughes, Bloomberg, Department for Education, Disney, Industrial Cadets, STEM Learning, and Qualcomm. For more information visit MoreThanRobots.UK

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