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The Real March Madness · 24 March 2013


Photo courtesy Jacob Knoth


Instead of watching college basketball games, I was watching a bunch of high school kids playing robot games. The students controlled robots that flung disks and climbed jungle gyms. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics truly is the hardest fun many people will ever have, but the competition and the timing really do beg the question, “What is the real March Madness?”


Make no mistake. I enjoy March Madness that is the NCAA college basketball tournament. I love the competition on the court and I like filling out a prediction bracket to see how well I do compared to my family, friends, and coworkers. We do not have anything riding on our pools except bragging rights (to which I rarely lay claim as I am usually out of the running before the first or second round is over). Still, I like to participate in the madness that is college basketball in March and April.


With the first weekend of March Madness and the FIRST Robotics Competition happening on the same weekend for my team of students, I got to thinking. (Which of course, can be dangerous.) I wondered if people really are a bit mad. Whether it is March or not.


As I thought about basketball, I could not help but think of all the kids who spend hours playing hoops trying to be the next great professional star. They play morning noon and night honing their skills and just hoping that they can get tall enough and skilled enough to go pro. They spend hours and hours perfecting jump shots, cross over dribbles, and whatever else it might take to get that big contract. But for most of the kids out there shooting and dribbling, there is little hope that the pros are in their future. They are too short or too weak or not talented enough. True, hard work overcomes much, but not everybody can be a professional basketball player (or any type of professional athlete). Working hard is not mad for an individual, but working hard to get a job you really will never be qualified for is. Especially, when taken in the context of how many people in society want to do a particularly rare job like professional athletics.


The other madness that I see in March is that there are so few people who want jobs in professions just begging for skilled people. That there are so few people, relatively speaking, who want to participate in the hardest fun they will ever have. That there are so few people who think of engineering and related fields as viable options when they think of professions.


In the two years that my students and I have been involved in FIRST Robotics, I have found the students to be as hard working as those youngsters out there dribbling, passing, and shooting basketballs every waking moment. The difference is a mantra for the FIRST folks. “Everybody can go pro” in this endeavor. Everybody can be an engineer or a technician or an entrepreneur. Everybody can design, solve problems, and think outside the box. Everybody really can go pro in some aspect of FIRST Robotics. It is akin to madness that more people do not consider these fields, especially the technical ones, when they decide what they should spend their time doing.


People can perfect their jump shots and never have what it takes to go pro. Or they can spend their time perfecting their people skills, their problem solving skills, their business skills, and their creative skills and go pro in any field that values those skills. Which is, of course, every field. Especially the technical ones.


I love March Madness. It is a great time to see that the outcomes of games are unpredictable. It is a fun time to connect in a different way with family and friends. But being involved with FIRST Robotics (which has competitions on many of the same weekends) has made me realize that sometimes the priorities we have are madness.


Maybe it would make more sense to watch less basketball (or at least record it for later) and go see what is happening with kids who can go pro in a technical field. It is not madness to skip watching a college basketball tournament to watch students solve technical problems and play robot games instead.


© 2013 Michael T. Miyoshi

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