My earliest idea of a robot came from the 1960s TV show “Lost in Space,” which featured a clunky R2D2 ancestor that waved his stiff arms and cried, “Danger, Will Robinson!” Robots have come a long way since then. Until I visited Tom Bickford in his home, I had no idea just how fun, versatile and educational the world of robotics has become.
Tom has degrees in biology and biomedical engineering. He has been a middle school math and science teacher, a telemedicine specialist linking institutions electronically to improve health care and an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector. Less visible than his work experience, but equally important, is the fact that Tom is an incredibly nice guy. Even working as an OSHA inspector — a generally dreaded visitor — he once got a thank-you letter. No matter what he does, Tom’s motivation in work is always to educate and to make things better — especially in the realm of science and technology.
It is no wonder, then, that he has taken on a job that is all about science education and fun.
In 2000, Tom took a job at the University of Maine in the field of computer systems technology. Part of his job was to expand people’s understanding of computer science. He looked around at some basic computer science programs, “but they were absolutely dry as toast.”
That’s when he became interested in LEGOs.
The LEGO Group is an 80-year-old Dutch toy company whose name comes from the two words “play well.” In 1998 the group introduced a robotics line with a programmable “intelligent brick.” That same year, the FIRST organization — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — collaborated with the LEGO Group to start the FIRST LEGO League, an international robotics program that promotes enthusiasm for science and technology in 9- to 14-year-olds. Almost 200,000 kids around the globe took part in last fall’s FIRST LEGO League events.
Starting in 2000, Tom directed UMaine’s Lego robotics outreach program for four years until they ran out of funding. It felt too important to abandon, so he took the plunge and kept it going on his own. Since 2004, Tom’s not-for-profit corporation, Maine Robotics, has touched the hearts and minds of 7,000 Maine children. In multiple forums that include summer camps, robot “track meet” competitions, and FIRST LEGO League events, the organization involves 1,200 kids, youth and adult mentors and teachers every year in educational programs.
In Tom’s living room, which doubles as his office, he showed me a giant robot crane.
“There are over 50 hours in that,” he noted. He also displayed a keyboard “robot” that plays music, and a robot car. All are made of Lego blocks and all use minicomputers that must be programmed to become remote controls.
“Directing the robots is kind of like sending them text messages,” Tom said.
His expertise is impressive, and his enthusiasm is contagious. The fun of it, though, is actually a ploy to tackle a serious problem, which Tom describes with some gravity.
“There is a desperate need for this,” Tom said. “We aren’t producing the engineers and IT [Information Technology] professionals we need to keep up in today’s world.”
Our country’s numbers for professionals in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — are hundreds of thousands below where they need to be, and every year has been worse than the year before. Nationally and in Maine there is now a big push to turn that around.
“We need to teach fewer subjects better, and offer a sense of mastery,” he said.
Innovation and creativity are the goals for Maine Robotics.
“If we have 16 campers in a camp session, by the end we hope to see 16 different project endpoints,” Tom said. Ingenuity, rather than conformity, is the name of the game.
Tom is grateful for the donations of space and time from many people and institutions around the state, but keeping the company going is a perpetual struggle. As of now, though, he has no intention of quitting.
“Somebody’s gotta do it,” he said.
Two robot track meets are coming up and are open to the public:
• 9 a.m. May 5, at Ellsworth Elementary School.
• 9 a.m. May 12, at Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.