Researchers at Stanford University recently discovered that a certain species of mealworm can digest polystyrene foam (aka Styrofoam), rubber and other substances thought to be non-biodegradable. Pretty cool, right? FIRST LEGO League students at Duval Charter School at Baymeadows certainly thought so. When they were given this year’s problem for the FIRST LEGO League Challenge—to come up with a solution for how to handle trash—they were inspired to get in touch with the Stanford scientists and help them with their research.

These dynamic educational initiatives are all part of a program that supports innovative ways to teach science, technology and engineering; FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology) and its local affiliate, Renaissance Jax. Not long ago, access to the FIRST program was very limited in its scope in Northeast Florida, but it has grown by leaps and bounds thanks to Renaissance Jax’s fearless leader, Mark McCombs. He and his team have quadrupled the number of robotics teams in Duval County schools in less than three-years’ time.

Neptune Beach Elementary: “We Are the Robosharks!”

On a Tuesday afternoon in early February, students from Neptune Beach Elementary’s robotics club are engaged in intense discussion about the recent FIRST LEGO League Challenge at the MOSH. Each year, FIRST and Renaissance Jax create the Challenge and host a series of competitions for various levels. Seated around their “Rising Star” trophy on the floor of teacher Natalie Cook’s classroom, they are recollecting how well they worked as a team.

In fact, teamwork is a hallmark of the FIRST program. Students who participate are encouraged to practice a spirit of “coopertition,” a mash-up of “cooperation” and “competition.” The teams are expected to be helpful, collaborative and friendly to each other and to other participants.

There’s no shortage of team spirit here. The Neptune Beach kids named themselves the Robosharks, and they even created their own cheer, which they are eager to perform. “Hands all in, hands all in, here we are with Robot Fin! We are the Robosharks!” They shout.

Today, the students are all wearing matching team t-shirts. On the day of the competition, they also wore shark hats. As cohesive as they are, it’s surprising that the group was just formed this year. For many of the students, this was their first opportunity to build a robot.

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When Carolyn Peterson, teacher of the Gifted program at the school, heard there was an opportunity to serve as the coach, she eagerly jumped on board. She knows that there is no shortage of skills needed when it comes to robotics in education. Robotics develops teamwork, problem solving, computer programing, social skills, presentation skills, conversational skills, exposure to STEM/STEAM, and creative expression. The Robosharks are part of a much larger movement, a trend that is sweeping over North Florida; fueled by Renaissance Jax. Neptune Beach joins 130 other teams this year as a growing number of schools in the region embrace the FIRST program.

Renaissance Jax is Born

Flash back to 2013, when FIRST participation in Jacksonville was a fraction of its current size. Resident Mark McCombs had a vision. A Jacksonville native, he participated in the FIRST program in high school. When he entered the engineering program at UNF, McCombs realized he had many advantages over his peers simply because of his prior experience in robotics.

So as McCombs finished up his college education, he began to envision how to make FIRST available to more students across the region. Not only did he want to give other students the opportunities he’d had, he wanted the engineering and technology culture in Northeast Florida to undergo explosive growth—a renaissance, if you will. McCombs knew that if more Duval County students had access to that kind of education, good things would start to happen in Jacksonville. Innovative things.

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He saw how he, and many other fellow alums from the FIRST program, were being recruited by exciting technology companies such as SpaceX, and being offered substantial scholarships for higher levels of education. He was tempted to leave Jacksonville, to go out to the West Coast and land a job with an innovative engineering firm. But he realized that if he could grow a large group of engineers right here in the city, Jacksonville could be transformed. Instead of letting our engineering talent leave for big technology hubs, why not create a hub of our own by attracting big companies here? Growing the talent pool could do just that.

And so it began. McCombs rallied support for his vision and took the lead. “That’s when I realized that if I didn’t do it, nobody else was going to,” he says. At the time, there were only 18 local FIRST teams, and McComb’s goal was to eventually have more than 300 teams in Jacksonville alone. In the spring of 2013 they held the first ever FIRST event in Jacksonville, with only 11 teams participating. Compare that to 2015, when they hosted or supported 17 events, which included 170 teams.

Skills, Solutions, Scholarships

According to McCombs, students involved in FIRST are “learning how to learn, and cultivating curiosity by using robotics.” There are many skills that the kids need to have, or need to develop, as they go through the process of engineering robots. “On a basic level, they have to read and comprehend instructions. Reading comprehension is one of the biggest parts of FIRST LEGO League because if you can’t read the rules, you can’t play the game.” Social interaction is important too, and students must learn how to communicate well with each other. Mastering project management is another key to success. “Knowing how to tackle all parts of the Challenge each year: playing the robot game, doing the research project based on a real-world problem and incorporating the Core Values of FIRST,” McCombs says also builds tools vital to entrepreneurship in general.

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And if that’s not enough, consider the good reputation of the organization. Being a FIRST participant markedly raises a student’s chances of being accepted to college, entering prestigious programs and receiving scholarships. FIRST is facilitating $25 million in scholarships this year alone.

The 4th and 5th graders on the Roboshark team aren’t too concerned about scholarships or job prospects yet. They simply enjoy the challenge and camaraderie of their robotics program. “You’re part of something that bonds you together,” says one student.

Another student adds, “Every day we try something new, and learn something new, and sometimes it takes us a week to get a program right. We have to try new solutions all the time.”

For the founder of Renaissance Jax, being part of a robotics team is all about learning to look at the world differently and taking responsibility to act when there’s a problem. McCombs says, “It teaches kids to own the problem and own the solution, and possibly turn that solution into a commodity—sometimes they get patents and companies even buy their technology. When students participate in the Challenge, there’s nothing that’s made-up. These are real-world problems they are solving.”