‘Sport of the Brain’
NIAID’s Lin Leads Robotics Team as FIRST Coach
The pink robot, pride of the Almond Robotics team, fended off challenges from black and green robots as it raced to fill a tower with yellow blocks. Four robots in total dueled in the square-shaped arena, cheered on by bleachers full of enthusiastic spectators, but Almond Robotics deposited one more block at the last second and ultimately came out on top.
“It’s comparable to a basketball game,” said Almond team coach Dr. Dawei Lin, describing the tournament. Lin is a volunteer for the organization For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST). He’s also the associate director for bioinformatics and senior advisor to the director in NIAID’s Division of Allergy, Immunology and Transplantation.
FIRST is an international youth robotics community that currently serves 110 countries and roughly 679,000 students. It’s a nonprofit run entirely by volunteers. It was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, an engineer and innovator who is also known for inventing the Segway vehicle and the iBOT mobility system. Despite having these famous devices on his resume, Kamen has said FIRST is his best invention.
FIRST has three programs that young people can participate in based on age and interest: FIRST LEGO League (FLL), where youngsters use LEGO to learn about robotics and engineering; FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), where students build, design, code and compete robots; and FIRST Robotics Competition, in which older youths build industrial-sized robots and compete in a challenging field game.
Teams square off in regional contests, with the winners advancing to the world competition.
“Robotics is a sport of the brain,” Lin explained.
He learned about FIRST from an exhibit at the Maker Faire in the California Bay Area. His children were too young to participate at the time, but they became a “FIRST family” in 2013 after moving to Maryland. The kids started out on the FLL team and moved to FTC when they grew older, and now serve as mentors and coaches to younger students in the program.
Watching the students grow and mature is one of Lin’s favorite things about FIRST. He has served as a coach and mentor for almost 10 years, often hosting teams in the basement of his home.
“[It’s incredible to watch the students grow] into young leaders who can impact society in a way they may not realize,” he said.
Many of the FIRST coaches and volunteers are engineers. Lin, as a bioinformatician, is unique in both his background and his manner of teaching.
“I mostly coach their thinking styles,” he explained. In school, he said, children are normally given problems to solve, hindering their ability to practice critical and innovative thinking. Lin addresses this lapse by trying to “teach before the problem,” or how to define the problem in the first place. The process is very similar to the scientific method, an apt teaching tool for an NIH employee.
Lin’s teaching style paid off last year: his FTC team won the championship title for the MD/DC/VA region and represented the region to compete with the top teams worldwide at the FIRST championship in Houston. Besides the team awards, Lin’s team also won the Dean’s List award three years in a row, which is FIRST’s highest individual leadership award.
FIRST also emphasizes real-world problems through its yearly themes. Students are asked to complete a research project and accompanying device, in addition to their robot. The 2022 theme, “Superpowered,” asks students to explore energy sources and how we can use energy more efficiently in the future.
Last year’s theme, “FIRST FORWARD,” was focused on transportation. Lin’s team met with a UPS employee to discuss solutions for preventing package damage. The students learned that most package damage happens during sorting (which occurs on conveyor belts and often causes items to collide), rather than during delivery. The team decided that redesigning the packaging might be a good solution; compactable or adjustable boxes might sustain less damage.
For another year, Lin’s team devised a tool (dubbed the “trash talker”) that scans the barcodes on consumer products and flashes red or green to tell you whether the item is recyclable. This invention could prevent people from accidentally putting trash into recycling bins, which decreases the value of recycled materials.
“This is the result when you let kids think for themselves,” Lin said proudly.
For more information on FIRST, visit https://www.firstinspires.org/.