FIRST Robotics Regionals Bring Sports Fervor to Engineering

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 develop the best strategy for the roughly two-minute, three-against-three game.

Saturday’s regionals brought about other opportunities for collaboration that you wouldn’t normally see. Local readers may know that Newton’s two high schools are chief rivals when it comes to sports. But the two schools joined as one team to build a robot for the competition, naming themselves the Ligerbots, a hybrid of the Newton North Tiger mascot and the Newton South Lion mascot.

Teamwork is just one of the many skills the FIRST organizers hope that the high school contestants can eventually take into the workforce. In the process of building their robot, students exercise much of the same design decision-making that professional engineers do. I spoke with some across-the-pond contestants from the American School in London, who told me they opted to equip their robot with a lifter (the part that keeps it in the air) in lieu of a kicker (the part that shoots the ball), in order to make the weight restrictions.

One of the main ideas behind FIRST is to get students involved in an extracurricular activity with sports-like structure and energy, but much greater future opportunities beyond high school than athletics typically provide. The corporate sponsors, who included Google, Boston Scientific, Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC), and iRobot, generally see their contributions to the contest as an investment in a future workforce of engineers, designers, and businesspeople.

“You can be excited about this just like you can a sports team, but you can actually do this as a real job,” said Jacob Warren, an engineer at defense robotics firm QinetiQ North America and advisor to a team from Upton, MA’s Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School.

That was a sentiment share throughout the arena Saturday. That, and the fact that engineers should be revered alongside athletes. “It really shows you that it’s cool to be a nerd,” Paige Grody, a sophomore member of the aforementioned Ligerbots, said of the event. “We have more spirit here than at football games.”


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