A different kind of March madness

    Over the past weekend, 65 teams began their quest for the NCAA Basketball Championship, while countless among us breathlessly chart the progress of our "brackets." As an avid sports fan, I am following right along with everyone else, but I do so with cheers from an equally important contest still ringing in my ears, providing a reminder that athletics viewed in its proper context is merely part of the overall education and formative process for young people. 

    As the new CEO of Discovery World, I was asked to take part as a first-time judge at the FIRST Robotics Wisconsin Regional Competition last weekend. I witnessed a thrilling competition that inspires young people to pursue careers as scientists and engineers and promotes a spirit of "gracious professionalism" that is too often lost in society’s focus on sports. FIRST Robotics (www.usfirst.org), launched 15 years ago by inventors and engineers, challenges high school students to build a robot for competition from a standard "kit" of parts over a six-week period.

    Most teams work year round, preparing for the rigors of the intense spring competition, often receiving high school credit. Adult mentors, parents, teachers and corporations contribute skills, time and financial resources to these students, who represent all racial, social and ethnic backgrounds.

    I had a front row seat as 60 teams – most from the Midwest, but one hailing from as far away as Hawaii – competed at the US Cellular Arena. Ingenuity, elegant design and competitive performance were rewarded throughout the weekend, but other awards, including the highest honor, were bestowed on teams exhibiting spirit, inspiration and "gracious professionalism" – an ideal central to FIRST which encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.

    Each team cherishes success, but they know that success can mean much more than mere triumph on a scoreboard.

    The competition began with 80 round-robin matches, after which the top eight teams formed three team alliances and battled for the champion’s trophy. The finals provided a level of excitement that rivaled any sporting event at the high school or collegiate levels, with thousands of screaming fans looking on. The eventual winning alliance included a seasoned group of Waukesha area students, a group of students from several Platteville high schools and a rookie team composed of students from an inner city Minneapolis public school.

    But winning was not restricted to those who prevailed in the final match. Consider just a few of scenes I witnessed: a young man confined to a wheel chair who served as the "driver" for his team, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat by maneuvering his robot to heave a ball over a six-foot tall obstacle in the waning seconds of a match. The celebration by this young man – and his teammates who mobbed him – was something to behold.

    During another match, I saw another team use their robot’s "arms" to reach down and rescue an opposing robot which had been knocked over and disabled, expressing more interest in fair play than in scoring points in that single game. Events like these were common, providing this viewer with ample evidence that these young people are getting life lessons that will make them winners for years to come.

    When the points from weekend matches were totaled, MORE Robotics did not place in the top 40.  However, this team of Milwaukee area high school students received the Regional Chairman’s Award, the weekend’s most prestigious honor, and a chance to compete at the National Finals in Atlanta because they exemplify "gracious professionalism" at every turn. These young people and their mentors devote time and talent to other teams, sponsor youth Lego teams, and expand math and science education and career possibilities to hundreds of other students and families throughout the year.

    As we gather round televisions to watch young athletes compete in the NCAA tournament and lavish attention on society’s "heroes," we should also remember that groups like FIRST Robotics and competitions like those held recently in Milwaukee are critically important for shaping careers, providing future leaders and solidifying our local and national economy for years to come.

    In the 21st Century, smarts and innovation can be as "cool" as a reverse dunk.


    Joel Brennan is the chief executive officer of Discovery World in Milwaukee.

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