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National Instruments' RoboRIO specification flyer for its FIRST robotics competitions. (Source: NI)
National Instruments' mission is to equip engineers and scientists with technologies that accelerate productivity, innovation, and discovery. Since many of society's significant engineering challenges will be met in the future, NI extends this mission to the next generation of innovators through investments of time, technology, and financial support. NI believes the best way to encourage students to pursue careers in STEM-related fields is by providing interactive, hands-on learning experiences with real-world engineering tools. This educational philosophy teaches STEM concepts in fun, meaningful ways and inspires students to experiment and innovate.
The company uses robotics platforms powered by NI technology to teach engineering fundamentals, such as mechanics, electronics, and software programming. NI also provides support for robotics competitions, in-classroom mentoring, and enrichment programs around the world. These programs serve approximately 250,000 students per year and NI donates more than $1.5 Million USD annually to education institutions and collaborative nonprofit organizations. The company has also mobilized its employees by creating robotics mentorship programs in 14 of its worldwide offices. NI employees have mentored in more than 140 classrooms, teaching STEM skills to more than 3,000 students.
Controller module for FIRST: In 2013, the company continued providing technology and funding for student robotics competitions including the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) and the World Robotics Olympiad. As a longtime partner and technology provider for FIRST, NI unveiled NI roboRIO, a next-generation robotics controller designed for FRC teams. The device is smaller, faster and more powerful than previous controllers. It will enable students to design complex robotics systems faster than ever before.
National Instruments' Robo RIO product made specifically for FIRST competitions. (Source: NI)
In August, the company announced its plans to extend its technology partnership with FIRST through 2019, and committed itself to donating the new NI roboRIO controller to every FRC team for the upcoming season starting in 2014.
LabVIEW Action Packs courseware: This past year, NI also introduced new K-12 courseware for the classroom by releasing LabVIEW Action Packs, which are interactive curriculum bundles that demonstrate science and engineering principles, such as energy conservation, structural test, and heat transfer. NI LabVIEW Action Packs encourage students to explore how scientific theories apply to the real world by combining NI hardware and LabVIEW software with guided lesson plans and hands-on experiments. The interactive Action Packs demonstrate science concepts in several subjects including engineering, computer science, physics, and chemistry.
NI LabVIEW Campus Tour: For the university audience, National Instruments traveled across the United States and Canada with the NI LabVIEW Campus Tour, a tour bus outfitted with the latest hardware and software tools for engineering students, professors, and researchers. The NI LabVIEW Campus Tour visited 109 universities and introduced thousands of students and educators to technologies that accelerate advanced research in the lab or bring relevance to complex science and engineering concepts learned in the classroom. The vehicle showcased a wide variety of teaching tools for multiple engineering disciplines. At each campus, NI experts invited engineering students and professors to try out technology demos and explore concepts in circuits, measurements, control, mechatronics, and RF communications.
Human mentors for robotics: In addition to introducing, sharing and donating new technologies to promote STEM education, one of the most valuable contributions the company made was through its company-wide robotics mentorship program. National Instruments continued mobilizing its employees to volunteer their time as robotics mentors, working directly in classrooms or training mentors from other companies and organizations to volunteer. In 2013, nearly 150 employees dedicated their time as robotics mentors and taught STEM skills and concepts in robotics programs at local schools and mission-aligned organizations, which include:
The Boys and Girls Club of America;
GirlStart, which empowers young girls in math, technology, and science;
Breakthrough Austin, which aims to decrease high-school dropout rates among low-income students; and
the Sunflower Mission, which is devoted to improving the lives of people in Vietnam through educational programs.
Policy support: Lastly, NI has taken a leadership role in raising the importance of STEM education among policy makers and in directly advocating for continued improvement in STEM education at all levels. In 2013, NI partnered with US News & World Report for the US News STEM Solutions Conference in June and participated on several key committees and councils.
If you are interested in FIRST robotics, here is a story on EDN that talks about this year's FRC competition, where competitors have to complete their robot in a short time window. And, here's another story (shameless plug) that profiles the team my daughter competes with in FIRST Robotics FTC competition.
NI has also been involved with LEGO competitions, to the point where students use LabVIEW-based software to control robots. I recall an exhibit severalyears ago at the Boston Museum of Science on Lego Mindstorms.
Having witnessed the F.I.R.S.T. competions first-hand (sorry!), and as a mentor to Team 293 SPIKE, I would hands-down go with National Instruments. Their contributions to the electronic control and interface features on the robot challenges let high school students (and even some 8th-graders) gain the satisfaction, experience, and fun of creating a robot that they can control and be proud of.