FIRST Robotics Regionals Bring Sports Fervor to Engineering

3/30/10Follow @xconomy

I’m a Boston University alum, so Saturday wasn’t the first time I’ve witnessed two teams battling it out on Agganis Arena’s court, shooting with finesse and aggressively blocking, as fans cheered loudly from the stands.

Well, it was a little different than what I had previously witnessed, to be completely honest. The members of said teams were actually robots, and I was checking out the FIRST Robotics Boston regional competition, not a basketball game. And they were shooting soccer balls.

For those of you who don’t know, FIRST Robotics (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a worldwide robotics-building competition for high school students. The nonprofit behind the event was established more than 20 years ago by Dean Kamen, the Segway inventor, as a way to encourage high schoolers to explore technology careers, and to provide a solid extracurricular outlet for students passionate about science. Saturday’s event was the fifth time the regional competition has been held in Boston, and it included 53 teams and at least 1,000 students.

In FIRST, teams from high schools across the country (and globe) get a robot-building kit and about six weeks to construct their gadget. The specific challenge the machines must face in the competition changes yearly, with a soccer-style game being this year’s format. The finished robots zoomed across a mock field, hurdling over speed bumps that my car would have trouble clearing. Teams got a point for every goal scored, and had the chance to earn bonus points in the last 20 seconds of the game by latching onto bars above the field and hanging in the air.

RoboticsThese displays were almost as impressive as the costumes worn by competitors, which included but were not limited to: red army fatigues, a neon green Afro wig, duct tape vests, satin capes, and Viking outfits. Marc Hodosh, the chairman of the Boston regionals (and an Xconomist), describes the competition as a fusion of a rock concert and a sporting event, thanks largely in part to its arena setting and the blaring Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and Britney Spears music that accompanied the games.

In addition to fostering a fervor and excitement for engineering, FIRST looks to promote healthy competition and teamwork; what it dubs a “coopetition”. Teams from different high schools each build their own robots, but compete as randomly matched teams of three, at least initially. (The best eight teams from the seed rounds then get to choose the two teams they’d like to work with in the finals.) Regional winners get to advance to the championship games in Atlanta.

From what I could see, each robot is built differently, with some boasting strong offensive shooting skills, while others are killer blockers. These randomly determined matchups force the teams to take stock of each others’ strengths and quickly … Next Page »

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