Inspiring the next generation to give back — one robot battle at a time

July 22, 2019
5 min read

Dan Brodie

Chief Operating Officer

Image of robotics team standing around their wooden robot

In my experience, few things are more inspiring than a wonderful surprise.

I first heard about J. N. Burnett Secondary School’s world-beating robotics team in March, when a small group of students set out with their teacher to compete in Canada’s largest high-school robotics competition.

They pooled their money, and between them had $200 to build their robot, which they made out of wood. That’s right: Wood

Upon arriving at FIRST Robotics Canada’s Pacific Regional Championships in Victoria, Burnett quickly discovered that they were way out of their depth — or so it seemed. After all, their $200 robot was to compete against others with budgets as high as half-a-million dollars.

They were ranked the lowest out of 35 teams. When they started to compete, however, it became evident that Burnett had been seriously underestimated. The strength of their wooden robot made it extremely effective in a defensive position. Before long, and to the surprise of the other teams, they weren’t just taking part they were actually a strong contender. 

By the time the finals rolled around, the team had performed so well that the top-seeded squad, from Hawaii, chose to partner with them, and invited Burnett’s wooden robot into their alliance.

No one could believe it when the final scores were announced. Burnett had won! Against all odds, the rookie Canadian team from Richmond, British Columbia, had qualified for the World Championships in Houston, Texas with a $200 wooden robot.

However, they now faced yet another hurdle: Paying the US$5,000 entrance fee and estimated US$12,000 in flights and accommodation. Hearing of their predicament, and feeling inspired by their talent, commitment and accomplishments, I suggested they create a Giving Group on Charitable Impact. Because the Richmond School District is a qualified donee, anyone following or supporting the team could donate to their mission online and receive an immediate tax receipt. 

Two weeks later, Burnett’s inspiring run continued: Their Giving Group had helped raise enough money to cover the costs! They couldn’t believe it: They were on their way to Houston to compete in the Worlds!

As one of their parents told me, the scale of Burnett’s achievement sunk in when they arrived at the tournament’s stadium and saw the sheer number of teams competing. They would be going up against 300 teams from over 70 countries around the world.

Once again, they took everyone by surprise. Their trusty wooden robot made it through the first round, the second round, the third round…In fact, it made it all the way through to the quarter-finals. Up against the No. 1 team in the world, Burnett lost by just a single point. 

By the end of the tournament, one thing was clear: This wasn’t about teenagers building robots, this was about robots building teenagers. It was an opportunity for them to feel inspired, to take risks, and to experience the generosity of others.

At the end of the tournament, the founder of FIRST Robotics, Dean Kamen, gave a speech about his passion for education. During his talk, he said:

 “As teachers, we teach the future. That is why we teach.” 

This message resonated deeply with Burnett’s eldest team member and captain, 17-year-old Delgado, who has since introduced a robotics program to elementary students in Richmond, and has decided to pursue a career as a teacher.

For the team at Charitable Impact, it was hugely rewarding to play a role in helping Burnett chase their dreams. On one hand, their journey embraces the spirit of collaboration reflected in everything from our India-based development team to the many school partnerships of our Charitable Allowance Program, in which participating students receive $10 a month to donate to the charity of their choice. On the other, members of the Burnett team are now mentoring elementary school kids in robotics and STEM programs to get them excited about the future and achieving things that seem impossible.

Back in March, it must have seemed impossible that Burnett would be invited by NASA to participate in the first-ever Canadian International Space Settlement Design Competition. But it happened, and wouldn’t you know it, Burnett won. Now, they’ve been invited to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the ISSDC finals.

All these experiences were made possible by the kindness of those who donated to the cause. It’s had a profound impact on the team, which has been inspired to give back so others can have similar experiences. 

This kind of snowball effect is at the heart of everything we do at Charitable Impact. We believe that when it comes to giving and generosity, it’s all about inspiring and empowering people. Everyone envisions a change they would like to see in the world. An essential part of creating positive change now, and in the future, is inspiring the next generation to give back.