More than 70,000 students competing in the FIRST Robotics Competition spend about six weeks designing and building a robot that can throw, climb, assemble and compete. And when it’s time to ship their masterpieces to the national competition, they trust FedEx to deliver their hard work.
FIRST Robotics Competition is an annual event that engages high school students in science, technology, engineering and math. They come together to raise funds, form a team, hone teamwork skills, and build and program robots to perform prescribed tasks against competitors.
“Our mission is to transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders,” says Dean Kamen, inventor and founder of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).
As a sponsor of the program, FedEx ships more than 28,000 robots to the annual national championship. “We are committed to education and innovation—both are an integral part of our culture and strategy,” says Tabatha Stephens, manager of corporate contributions at FedEx. “We are thrilled to contribute to the competition by transporting these incredible 400-pound robots around the country.”
A few years ago, David Nelson, a packaging project engineer for FedEx, answered a call on the customer service hotline. “It was a high school student, asking for advice on shipping a large, heavy robot,” says Nelson.
Nelson tests and designs packaging for FedEx—he is an expert in shipping unique products. So when it came to shipping robots, he was the right guy for the job. “These are not items that can be dropped in a box and be ready to go,” he says. Instead, he advised the students to construct a large custom crate that would protect the robot in transit.
Since then, FedEx has become a sponsor for FIRST and now offers shipping in addition to advice. The company ships the “Kit of Parts” to the student teams at the start of the competition season and then ships the final product, their robot, to the championship. “It is inspiring to see the students get excited about technology,” says Nelson. “It pushes them to be innovative and creative.” Nelson is also a mentor on his daughter’s FIRST® LEGO® League team—a junior robotics program for 9 to 16 year olds.
Innovation is a key part of working at FedEx. And while the packaging department may not seem like a place for innovation, Nelson says it is critical to the company and its customers. He has spent 20 years designing and perfecting packaging for the company. “The FedEx Packaging Lab is a free service because we want to be able to help anyone ship anything through our network,” he says, “and sometimes that requires us to get a little creative.”
Nelson develops standard FedEx solutions and custom solutions for clients, such as a specialized container to ship medical equipment or a box designed to safely ship a laptop that can be customized on the spot to fit specific sizes and shapes.
“We strive to be innovators in our industry, from packaging to delivery methods to sponsoring programs like FIRST,” says Stephens.
A study of FIRST alumni by the Center for Youth and Communities at Brandeis University revealed impressive results for the program participants. Overall, participation in FIRST helped students build relationships and learn new skills, gain a new understanding of science and technology, make a successful transition to college, and become much more likely to pursue their interests in science and technology.
“Clearly, participating in FIRST provides experiences that are critical to the development of young people and can have a significant influence on their educational careers,” says Stephens. “Hopefully, with our support, the competition can continue to inspire the next generation’s interest in science and technology.”