I’m a big fan of FIRST Robotics. From the programs like FIRST Lego League for middle school students to the FIRST Tech Challenge and up to the “varsity” FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) I love it all. I saw it transform students from being almost unaware of engineering to excited and motivated to follow it as a career through their involvement with “my team.” I haven’t been involved in the day to day of a team in a number of years. My current job takes me away form the area a lot during the prime building season. But I still attend events when I can. This past week end was one of those chances for me. I attended the Granite State Regional event in Manchester NH. And I took friends with me.

Now I’ve talked to people who visited at FIRST event and came away unimpressed. I had trouble understanding that because these events just wow me. The friends I took yesterday were at their first FIRST event and they were wow’ed. Talking to them I realized what the key difference was. The people who were not impressed came away talking about the hardware. What did the robots look like and perform? What computers did or did they not see in the pit area? What software was in use? What hardware? They didn’t talk about the students.

My friends on the other hand came away talking only about the students. Did you see the excitement in their eyes? Did you hear them cheering for their team and for other teams? Did you listen to them talk about their robot and what they are learning? And again – isn’t it great to see excitement about science, engineering and technology in kid’s eyes?

It’s not the technology that matters really. That’s not what is important in FIRST and it’s not what is important in schools either. What matters is results. Are the lights on in the student’s eyes? I visit a lot of schools – sometimes alone and something with others. It is ever so tempting to judge schools by the physical things. Is it a modern building? Are there computers in every room? Are their ceiling mounted LCD projectors and interactive white boards around the building? And those things are cool/great/helpful/etc. But they are not the way to judge a school. Rather schools are better judged by looking at the students.

Are they respectful in the halls? Do they seem happy to be in school? Do they talk to teachers out of the classroom. And most of all are their lights on in their eyes? Schools are about the people first and foremost. A good school turns kids on to learning. The saying I saw repeatedly at TCEA the other week was “learning is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire.” (Credit to Irish poet William Butler Yeats)

That is what good schools, good teachers, good learning experiences are about - lighting that fire. Technology can help but it is not the answer by itself. For someone who works with technology and for a technology company it’s useful to be reminded of that once in a while. The tools are good so far as they go but you have to look students in the eyes to see if the technology is working.