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More Than Robots Review: Smart kids Compete and Compute in This Delightful Documentary

Kids today are lucky enough to have a wealth of technology at their disposal to help further their education. As well as the traditional curriculum which is identical for kids across the board, there are various programs run by schools that allow developing minds an opportunity to bolster STEM careers. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is the focus of FIRST, an international youth organisation that operates the FIRST Robotics Competition. High school students, thier teachers and mentors are given six weeks to build a robot that can complete specific tasks, such as scoring balls into goals, placing inner tubes onto racks, hanging bars, or balancing on a beam. Founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen in 1989, it is a challenging test of ingenuity and cooperation that is the subject of “More Than Robots”, a new feature-length documentary directed by Gillian Jacobs that arrives on Disney+ this week.

“More Than Robots” follows teams from Los Angeles, Mexico City and Chiba, Japan, as they unpack the materials for this year’s competition, where the tasks change every year. The event is sponsored by Lucas film, so the teams are treated to an introduction from a well known Star Wars star.

It follows a fairly standard documentary format, as Gillian Jacobs and her crew follow the teams preparing for their regional competitions. There is a lot of trial and error, nervousness and debate, but ultimately, each section triumphs as the teenagers figure out how to make the most efficient robot.

Some teams are more successful than others, as some have to accept defeat, but the real victory is in the skills these kids develop along the way. The competition took place just before the Covid 19 pandemic took off, so most teams ended up having their regional finals cancelled. This part of the documentary feels disappointing, especially as up to that point, it was so spirited, but there’s a silver lining to be found in these unfortunate events.

Without the robotics competition to focus on, these young, ambitious, ingenious minds put their STEM skills to work by figuring out how to help the communities around them during the pandemic. One team creates a 3D printer for face masks, another a robot that can deliver groceries; it sounds like a cliche, but it’s clear why the film is called “More Than Robots.”

The documentary is a lovely look at a group of promising kids from all walks of life and shows them being given a chance to spread their wings and find a community of like-minded peers to help them get through their often volatile teenage years.

“More Than Robots” premieres on Disney+ on March 18, 2022

Matt Jones

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