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FIRST catching fire across nation

New Hampshire Sunday News

July 29. 2017 11:45PM
Spencer Gregg, center, and his Data Force teammates from Littleton, Co., alongside Height Differential alliance mates from Saint Paul, Minn., compete in the First Robotics Festival of Champions Saturday morning at SNHU Arena in Manchester. (JOSH GIBNEY/SUNDAY NEWS)

MANCHESTER - Dean Kamen was smiling like a proud papa as he welcomed the first-ever FIRST Festival of Champions to Manchester's SNHU Arena on Saturday.

Hundreds of middle and high school students from 24 states, plus Australia and Canada, cheered on bouts between the robotics team "alliances" that had emerged as champions last spring in FIRST championships held in Houston and St. Louis.

It's just what Kamen, a Bedford inventor/entrepreneur, envisioned nearly 30 years ago when he dreamed aloud about creating a program that elevates science and technology to the same level of excitement found in sports competitions.

Excited youngsters, their parents and adult mentors crowded into the state's largest arena to celebrate FIRST's success so far and look to its future.

Gov. Chris Sununu took the occasion to announce a commitment to bring a FIRST robotics team next year to every school in New Hampshire that wants one. "Absolute done deal," he promised.

Kamen founded FIRST in Manchester in 1989; there are now FIRST robotics programs for kids from kindergarten through high school.

Calling Saturday's event "the Super Bowl of engineering," the engineer-turned-governor told the crowd, "We believe in FIRST, we believe in Dean Kamen and most importantly, we believe in our students."

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak got everyone on their feet and led a boisterous round of cheers. Then he announced that Kamen is receiving "the most prestigious award that the United States Air Force gives to any civilian," the American Spirit Award.

Citing the Air Force motto, "Aim High," Harencak said no one exemplifies that better than Kamen. "We believe that Mr. Dean Kamen has changed positively the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men and women around the world," he said.

Kamen, whose latest project is the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute, a biotech hub in the Manchester Millyard, said FIRST remains one of the most amazing things he's ever done: "To help create a movement of people around the country, and now around the world, that are developing the skills and the vision and the courage to fix the world, to make it a place that's better than it's ever been."

President Donald Trump sent a video message to the youngsters attending the event, calling them "winners."

"You are problem-solvers, inventors, builders and innovators," he said. "So thank you for your hard work, congratulations on your incredible achievement, good luck - and may the best robot win!"

Saturday's event was a festival of celebration, not a competition, Kamen said. The premier FIRST Robotics Championship was held in a high school gym here in 1992 with just 28 teams competing; this year, more than 460,000 students on more than 52,000 teams worldwide participated in the program.

FIRST has more than $50 million in scholarships available to nearly 200 participating universities.

And while its mission was to inspire youngsters - FIRST is an acronym for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science & Technology" - Kamen said it turns out that "it's the students that are inspiring everybody that ever comes in contact with FIRST."

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