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No brats here: FIRST students smart and earnest

April 8, 2014
A couple weeks ago at Cleveland's FIRST Robotics event, I got to meet about 250 high-school kids from about 30 out of the 57 school teams competing. They had great attitudes.
Time Magazine says kids today are "lazy entitled narcissists" but when hasn't the older generation said that?

Pundits backed by head-shaking researchers regularly lament the bad attitude of today's youth. Just consider TIME Magazine's cover article last year documenting the skyrocketing incidence of narcissistic personality disorder in people in their 20s. Such criticism is nothing new: The first Me generation were Baby Boomers, one of an endless line of generations rebuked by those older and wiser for their self-centered ways.

One researcher that regularly studies the "sense of entitlement" in Generations X and Y and beyond is Jean Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego State University.

Daily Mail, you bought this obnoxious image.

In some of Twenge's writings, I detect a bit of predictably indulgent self-loathing: Twenge is herself part of the much-maligned X generation, and has a splashy website that's somewhat ironic — — which also includes a link to a page detailing her iGen consulting business. You can see one of her pieces of research featured in an online Daily Mail article detailing how some college students think they're ultra-special. The article is littered with a bunch of clipart depicting teenagers in various snotty poses. For those not in the publishing business, clipart is puchased images — staged images in the case of photography — using paid models. In the case of the Daily Mail piece, I believe the art is unnecessary and perhaps even a tad sensational. Contrast these staged images with the candid photographs below.

You see, this is some anecdotal evidence that there's no attitude problem in much of today's youth.  Yes, there are few things worse than a sense of entitlement.   But two weeks ago at a FIRST Robotics event, the Buckeye Regional 2014 Arial Assist competition held here in Cleveland, while serving as a judge, I got the chance meet about 250 high-school kids from about 30 out of the 57 school teams competing.  These included students bound for college and interested in STEM and non-STEM degrees.  When the other judges and I interviewed them at their pits, there were a few students that boasted about skills and efforts.  But attitude was the exception.

Here, students dash around the field after an event. Photo courtesy Tim Callahan Photography. (Click on photo for link.)

The vast majority of students we met were humble, respectful, and quick to praise and help other teams. In fact, I was astonished by their hard work and humility.

Members of the N.Y. team #1507, the Warlocks, cheer for their robot (which had a good showing). Photo courtesy Tim Callahan Photography.

These kids have great attitudes, and were able to acknowledge their robots' shortcomings, the trials they met during the design process, and the contributions of all their mentors and team-mates.  Nearly all the non-STEM types were able to explain (without bragging) the things they do to raise funds, involve their larger community, and tutor younger children in the FIRST Lego Leagues.  The STEM types often got so lost in explaining their robots' design that there was no room for ego.   It was a beautiful thing.

Girls of Steel (FIRST Robotics team #3504) work together in their robot pit between competitions. Photo courtesy Tim Callahan Photography.

More specifically, the FIRST students I met were a modest, grateful, smart, enthusiastic, hard-working, realistic, and earnest bunch of extremely likable kids. Plus I was thoroughly impressed by the robots they designed.

On a related note, FIRST gives lots of points to teams during the robot competitions and off-court for cooperating with and assisting other teams. For example, the basketball-type game this year gave robots double points for passing to another robot for scoring.  All robots played for a randomly assigned school "alliance."

Students from N.Y. team #378, the Circuit Stompers, and Calif. team #846, the Funky Monkeys, steer their robots to score assist points.

In addition, we judges gave an award (which automatically sent the winning team to finals) for helping other teams with coding, and fixing rookie teams' bots, and giving other teams spare components such as extra motors or switches if them needed them.

Those awards are good planning on the part of FIRST, not because these young people need help shedding selfish or individualistic tendencies, but because they should be given honest praise for their natural cooperativeness.


About the Author

Elisabeth Eitel Blog

Elisabeth is Senior Editor of Machine Design magazine. She has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Fenn College at Cleveland State University. Over the last decade, Elisabeth has worked as a technical writer — most recently as Chief Editor of Motion System Design magazine.

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