RoboRAVE co-founder Russ Fisher-Ives details his adventures
An idea that germinated in Rio Rancho in 2000 has grown into a series of huge events around the world.
RoboRAVE, a robotics competition that had its inaugural event in 2001, is now in 20 other countries — but just six states, lamented one of its founders, Russ Fisher-Ives.
Originally the head of the Science Academy, later renamed SciMatics Academy, Fisher-Ives was convinced Rio Rancho High School was the perfect fit for him, and in 1997, RRHS administrators lured him there from West Mesa High School, where he’d been for 13 years. He thinks the reason he was hired was his response to, “How are you going to make science different here at Rio Rancho?”
“I said, ‘We’re going to have our lectures, we’re going to have our tests, but we’re going to be centered on doing — learning through application. That’s where kids remember — because they did it,’” he said.
Once hired, although unsure of exactly how he’d achieve that premise, he said, “We were always looking for that type of elective, that type of activity that’s going to engage the kids.”
Fisher-Ives credited Fabian Lopez at Central New Mexico Community College with starting robotics at RRHS. Lopez was teaching MEMS, micro-electrical mechanical systems, which deals with things that cross over into robotics.
“So he and Chris (Bandy, a CNM student and teacher in the RRHS Engineering Academy) started working and they came to me and said, ‘Russ, we want to get robotics going; we want to start a robotics competition,’” Fisher-Ives recalled.
At the time, there was a robotics event called FIRST: For Inspiration Recognition of Science and Technology. It cost $5,000 to enter, “(and) by the time you shipped everything to the regional event and got everybody down to the regional event, you were $15,000 into this event and only impacting 12 kids,” he said.
The three men sat down for breakfast at Village Inn one Saturday morning and decided to create a robotics program that reached more students for the same cost.
“Along came the idea of RoboRAVE — a lot of things had started coming into the market for different types of low-cost robotics, so Fabian and Chris were the technical leaders. They were the brains,” Fisher-Ives said. “I got involved because I got the materials, I got the location, I did the logistics and I was the pitch guy.”
The original event was the New Mexico RoboRAVE in December 2001 in the gym at Eagle Ridge Middle School.
“We had to wait till basketball practice was over,” Fisher-Ives recalled.
About two-dozen kids from RRHS, and maybe a few from Bernalillo High, competed, he remembered.
“We had one challenge; what we did then and what we do now are light years (apart),” he said.
That original challenge — following a black path, depositing a pingpong ball into a receptacle and returning to the starting point — is still part of RoboRAVE.
Soon, there were two RoboRAVEs a year, one in the central part of the state and another in the southern part. Fisher-Ives also planned and sought funding for the International Science and Engineering Fair, and after five years, he couldn’t let go of working on a international event.
“We had Mexico join New Mexico RoboRAVE in the second or third event,” he said. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. Mexico’s playing, along with us; we are international.’”
He changed the name to RoboRAVE International and folded it into Inquiry Facilitators Inc., the non-profit that ran the ISEF.
Packing his bags
“In 2008, I ended up going down to Columbia, and I got to meet with the secretary of education,” he said. “The Czech Republic held the first RoboRAVE outside of the U.S. … I get an email from China; I didn’t go looking for China. China did a worldwide review of robotics programs.
“I visit all these countries where they are bringing in RoboRAVEs,” he explained. “I go in and explain how it works: the philosophy, what it takes, the materials, the cost — so they get a complete understanding of what they’re taking on.
“The beauty about RoboRAVE? It’s organic: We don’t fund a single dollar to any RoboRAVE anywhere in the world. They’re all owned by local entities — a robot company, the mayor, city government.
“On this last trip, we just signed on three new countries: Poland, Afghanistan and Iran.”
Add Argentina, Nigeria and Zambia to that list of participating countries.
“The thing that amazes us, was when we started this thing in 2001, there was no idea that this was going to take off and this was going to be such a hot topic,” Fisher-Ives said. “Hands down, there is no other STEM topic that draws more kids in with more excitement than robotics, because, one, it’s created in such a way that any kid with any help or experience can sit down and in 20 minutes, they’ve got a robot that’s moving.”
What’s not moving, Fisher-Ives believes because of Common Core and other curriculum restraints, is robotics in the U.S. That’s why only six states participate in RoboRAVE.
“You look at traditional education, it’s content, content, content,” he said. “And teachers feel, if you don’t have content, you can’t do application. … We’ve completely cut that; it’s application with little bits of content.”
Fisher-Ives said there are three goals: Fun while learning, sharing and teamwork.
“This world needs more collaboration than we do competition,” he added. “We’re trying to be the Walmart of robotics.”
(For more on RoboRAVE, visit roborave.org.)