From time to time, there have been sports teams that dominated their game so much they were called dynasties. Over the years, the Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, and Dallas Cowboys have all been referred to as NFL ‘dynasties.’ The New York Yankees have certainly fit the bill in the MLB. In the NBA, it was the Boston Celtics in the 60’s, Los Angeles Lakers in the 80’s, and when Michael Jordan was playing, the Chicago Bulls in the 90’s.

With the way the Golden State Warriors dominated the competition toward the end of the 2017 season and steamrolled their way through the post-season, they could very well be on the way to becoming the next NBA dynasty.

When it comes to academia though, the word ‘dynasty’ is not typically used. However, here at ICS, we think it’s very interesting to look at the academic performance of various schools, regions, or even countries in the same terms as we do with sports. Luckily, academic competitions provide a great way of quantifying the level of excellence achieved just like we do with sports.

With this in mind, one question has been nagging us ever since the 2017 competition seasons started winding down: Is China on its way to becoming the Golden State Warriors of robotics?


The Question.

We hear a lot about China’s increasing dominance on the world stage of technology. So, is the US doomed to future mediocrity in the budding field of robotics, while we let China step up and become the next big robotic dynasty?

In recent years, China has become the leader in industrial robotics, buying more than any other country in the world. It’s all a part of a government-backed, industrial revolution centered on robotics that China has been promoting.

“Our country will be the biggest market for robots,” President Xi Jinping said in a speech to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2014, “but can our technology and manufacturing capacity cope with the competition?”

While China as a country has embraced the value of robotics in manufacturing, the vast majority of the industrial robots purchased by Chinese companies are still made outside of the country. So is China producing the educated workforce needed to actually design and manufacture the high tech robots that will drive the economy in the coming decades? To answer this question, we can turn to the world of academic competitions.

For China to become the leader in developing robotics and not just using them, a focus needs to be put on education. To be the best, one first has to learn how to be—well, the best. The right minds must be taught and the knowledge they acquire put into practice.

There happen to be a number of great academic competitions focused on robotics that give the best and brightest young minds a chance to test their skills—and their robots—against the top challengers the world has to offer. We’ve analyzed a few of the top robotics competitions to find the answer to our question – is China becoming a dynasty in robotics competitions?


The Competitions.

The Vex Robotics Competition, presented by the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation, refers to itself as the largest and fastest growing robotics competition in the world. In 2017, over 18,000 teams (elementary school, middle school, high school, and college) from 40 countries took part in over 1300 competitions. The season culminated in the 10th Annual World Championships held in Louisville, Kentucky, as 1400 teams from over 30 countries competed for the chance to be the best.

Teams are split up into five different competitive levels—the middle school, high school, and university competitions and the elementary school and middle school IQ challenges--with each being comprised of several divisions.


How did teams from China fair this year?

  • 1 team - from Xi'an Jiao Tong University - was the only team from China to win an Excellence Award, which is given to the team with the most well-rounded VEX Robotics program.
  • 2 of the 3 high school world champions were Chinese teams this year.
  • 2 of the 3 middle school world champions were Chinese, along with 3 other finalists.
  • Both world champions for the IQ elementary challenge were from China
  • The middle school IQ challenge had 1 team from China (Hong Kong), in 2nd place.


So, China did well, but did they dominate?

China definitely did well, with a bigger showing in the final rounds than most countries. And in the younger grades China seems to be even more dominant. However, if you factor in the performance in other Robotics Competitions — the answer is a bit fuzzier. Both the FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Challenge are international competitions whose seasons culminate in the World Championship competition. Unfortunately for China’s dynastic aspirations, neither competition has a history of teams from China winning the top awards.

In the FIRST Robotics competition, the Chairman’s Award is the highest honor a team can receive. Last season’s team was from West Virginia. In fact, the winners of the Chairman’s Award dating back to 2003 were teams based inside the United States.

For the FIRST Tech Challenge, the top team is named the Inspire Award winner. In the Houston World Championship competition, a team from Canada won. The St. Louis competition winner was a team from Iowa. Between the two, there was only one team from China that was recognized in the finals.  A list of past winners dating back to the 2005-06 season included a few teams from Mexico, but otherwise, the Inspire Award winners have all been teams from the United States.

Does this mean we should write off China’s chances at a future dynasty? Have teams from China just not done well? Of course not. There very well may be other factors that have limited how many teams from China showed up in the top spots. For one, not as many teams compete from China as they do from the United States. Perhaps as more schools begin to enter the competitions, China’s teams will begin to show up in the top spots more dominantly.


In Conclusion…

So—back to the original question. Is China the Golden State Warriors of robotics? Are they the dominant force in the world of academic Robotics Competitions? No. At least not yet. The Golden State Warriors took 2 of the last 3 NBA Championships and were in contention for the one they didn’t win. They have dominated either all of the competition or most of it for the last three seasons.

China has done very well in the robotics competitions, but not so well that they can be called a dynasty on par with the Warriors. They have done well, but the same could be said for teams from the United States and Canada. But don’t count them out for the future. China’s dominance in robotic competitions may not be far away - as we’ve seen from their strong performances at the younger grade level competitions. And as more schools begin to compete, it’s going to lead to very interesting show-downs for the next few years of robotic competition for sure.

The Golden State Warriors they are not. Cleveland Cavaliers--maybe. But the future is wide open. The 2017-2018 robotics competitions begin this fall. So stay tuned for more!

In front of a Taqueria with barred windows, a young man steps out of an SUV.  His friends jump out, all in baggy t-shirts, one holding a long, thin club.  A band of enemies rushes across the street, and soon fists are flying.

It’s a turf war between the Nortenos and the Surenos, two street gangs that haunt the streets of California.

The site is East San Jose, and the fight shines light on the dangerous life that Kenny Bargas lived as a gang member nearly two decades ago. A life where gangs would regularly take to the streets with clubs, knives and other weapons to stake claim to their turf.

Kenny lived in East San Jose as a gang member nearly two decades ago, but today he is an English teacher at Overfelt High School, back in his home town. The turning point for Bargas happened in 1999 when he joined his high school’s FIRST robotics team.

As a high school student who was still running with his gang, a robotics competition was not a typical activity.  The robot his team first built left something to be desired. But the team tried again in 2000, more determined than ever, and it worked.  Bargas led them to the 2000 FIRST national championship.  And that was the end of his gang life, and the beginning of his college search.

While the collegiate major Bargas ended up entering was in the Humanities, his story is similar to that of many youth who joined a FIRST team. FIRST alumni have a history of going above and beyond the norm and becoming not only leaders in STEM, but leaders in their communities and beyond.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology)  holds four competitions: First Lego League Jr. (K-4th grade); First Lego League (4th-8th grade); FIRST Tech Challenge (7th-12th grade); and the First Robotics Competition (9th-12th grade).

No doubt, a fun time is had by all, and to be sure, the winners feel a sense of pride.  But what about long-term impacts of participating in FIRST?  How and to what extent do participants take a page from Kenny’s book and leverage their inspiration into great academic achievements careers?

Well, we don’t have to ask or daydream.  The non-profit organization has done a lot of research into the impressive lives led by participants after they hang up their remote controls, soldering irons, and well, Legos.

To start with the basics, as anyone would guess, FIRST competitions increase interest in Math and Science and, as was the case with Kenny Barga, in going to college.  But according to a decade’s worth of data, it also has a huge impact on students’ problem-solving, time-management, and conflict-resolution skills. A study conducted by Brandeis University for FIRST noted that 98% of students demonstrated an increase in problem-solving skills, 95% increased time management, and 93% increased conflict resolution skills.

Let’s be real—FIRST is all about science, so you know it’s going to bust out some intense data collection methods.  Specifically, the organization did a longitudinal study, following its battle-scarred veterans for five years, and including a three-year update.

One of the key findings was that FIRST alums outpaced the control group in terms of STEM knowledge and interest in STEM careers.  Students who participated in FIRST for two years also showed a higher level of STEM knowledge than those who went one-and-out.

In terms of tangible career opportunities, FIRST alums are ten times more likely than their peers to land an internship or co-op position in their freshman year in college.  Seventy-five percent of FIRST alums are in STEM fields as professionals or students.  And if even a handful of the other 25% is made up of inspiring teachers like Barga who go back to their communities, the data are even more cheering.

If you’re wondering about the much-discussed issue of girls in STEM fields, FIRST is very effective there.  When looking at increased interest in STEM areas after FIRST competition, girls have a larger interest, compared to their peers, than FIRST alum boys do compared to non-FIRST boys.

Behind the numbers are many stories of FIRST alumni who take cues from the challenges in their competitions and attempt to solve real-world problems.  For example, a recent FIRST Lego League challenged asked participants to come up with solutions for trash problems.  One team, the TMI Pink Panthers, from San Antonio, discovered ways of turning plastics into fabric for recycled clothing.  They then proposed hiring women from homeless shelters to make these garments.

The Panthers’ enthusiasm and initiative is just one example of how the creativity of young minds can spill out beyond the competition.

Let’s also consider Diana Lee Guzman, an alum who went on to study Computer Science at NYU.  She not only teaches at the Center for K12 STEM Education, but is leading a Mobile Squad for the FIRST Technology Challenge, holding qualifiers and getting teams ready to compete.

A combination of the FIRST program and the enthusiasm and dedication of the students has allowed FIRST alums to represent the program well.

Time and time again we see real-world evidence that competitions like FIRST Robotics are engaging students not only in STEM careers, but in critical thinking, problem-solving, and other intangible benefits that percolate throughout our society. Kenny Bargas, Diana Lee Guzman, and the TMI Pink Panthers are just a few examples of what is happening across the United States, and the world.

Where students are engaged in competitive events, where they are forced to think hard about critical problems, they rise to the challenge. So we raise a glass to all of these students and their hard-working teachers, parents and other volunteers that support them on their journey. Let’s continue to support and encourage more students to engage in these programs as we advance into ever more complex digital and societal challenges!