On Thanksgiving, more than 3.5 million people attended and more than 50 million tuned in from home to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, a beloved American holiday tradition which started in 1924 and is known for its giant balloons.
What was different about this year was that a robot cut the official ribbon to get the parade started, followed by four other robots shooting confetti into the air.
These robotic creations were the result of hours of hard work and innovative thinking by high school students involved in FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a not-for-profit organization that provides mentor-based programs for young people that build science, engineering and technology skills, inspire innovation, and foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication and leadership. FIRST has influenced thousands of students throughout the world to pursue advanced education in engineering and related scientific fields such as computer science.
Four of these student participants hailed from the Baxter International Inc.-sponsored FIRST Team 16 from Mountain Home High School in Mountain Home, Ark., also known as the "Bomb Squad," a takeoff from their high school nickname "The Bombers." They walked the two and a half mile parade route with students from four other FIRST teams around the country—Team 1538, The Holy Cows, from San Diego, Calif.; Team 1477, Texas Torque, from The Woodlands, Texas; Team 180, S.P.A.M., from Stuart, Fla.; and Team 25, Raider Robotix, from North Brunswick, N.J.
Courtney Crawford, a 16-year-old junior at Mountain Home High School, joined Team 16 in January 2012 after spending two seasons on a junior high FIRST team. She was taken aback to learn that she'd be one of the four students from the team chosen to walk the parade route.
"I was stunned," Crawford says. "I was thinking to myself, 'we're a team from a small town in Arkansas—how did we make it to an event over 1,000 miles away that is televised all over the United States?' I have lived in Mountain Home my whole life and am not used to the huge city scene. So I was a little nervous about being one of the four parade participants, but very excited."
While from a smaller town, there's nothing small about Team 16; the group is a major contender on the FIRST competition circuit. Last year, after playing hundreds of games and winning three regional qualifying events that narrowed down the field from 400 teams, Team 16 went to the annual FIRST Championship Event and emerged as championship division winners.
One of the earliest established FIRST groups, Team 16 has been sponsored since 1996 by Baxter, which has a manufacturing facility in Mountain Home that produces medical devices. Baxter engineers and scientists mentor and assist with team projects, often traveling to competitions to provide team support.
"Every year we have quite a number of employees who participate with the students during this whole experience," says Glenn Burney, Mountain Home facility plant manager. "There's a very short time period during which the robot has to be built and shipped, and our employee mentors will spend some very long nights working into the wee hours of the morning to support the students."
Baxter employee mentors assisted Team 16 with the unique task of modifying their robot creation to shoot confetti from a cannon for the parade.
"Building the robot took about a month to complete. We had to test various pressures and materials for the cannon using a prototype, which the students had a lot of fun doing," says Jacquelyn Meissner, faculty sponsor for Team 16, and EAST (Environmental and Spatial Technology) facilitator at Mountain Home High School. "We didn't have an enormous amount of time to prepare for the event and I'm very proud of what the team accomplished in this short time period."
On the morning of the parade, the students' jitters were replaced by excitement as the ribbon was cut and they led the way with their robot through streets filled with cheering onlookers. Their other teammates, teacher and mentors cheered them on as well from the parade sidelines—celebrating the hard work and ingenuity that went into their festive robotic creation, in the spotlight for the whole country to see.
After the excitement of the parade, the team continued their New York City experience with a few days of sightseeing, checking out the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, 9/11 Memorial, Ellis Island and other landmarks.
"This was a great opportunity that I was so thankful to be a part of," says Crawford. "It felt amazing to be one of the representatives from FIRST."
For Meissner, the parade offered another special opportunity beyond her team's educational and travel experience. "I was happy we could spread the message of FIRST," she says. "I hope we're able to pique the interest of students around the U.S. and spark interest in science and technology education."
Burney agrees, noting that the STEM-learning (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math) opportunities offered by FIRST are helping build the next generation of scientists and engineers—even at Baxter.
"Over the last four years we've been able to hire two engineers who had competed in FIRST, went on to receive their engineering degrees and then came back to work here in the Mountain Home facility," he says. "Our partnership with FIRST has been rewarding; we're glad to be able to be part of an initiative that gets students excited about science and technology and the career possibilities they offer."