Teams Collect Prizes Like Moon Rocks in Regional Robotics Contest

Most of the teams that gathered at the San Diego Sports Arena last week came from the American Southwest—from places like Flagstaff, AZ, and El Centro, CA. One team came all the way from Pennsylvania. Another came from Brazil. But these teams didn’t come to the arena to play hockey, football, or some other sport.

They came to show that they could build a better robot. They came for the San Diego regional FIRST Robotics Competition. As a foreign visitor seeing this kind of competition for the first time, I was amazed and had incredible fun just watching it.

The sports arena was filled with strange-looking robots, cables, containers, bolts, joysticks, duct tape, rock music, cheering, and teen-agers—thousands of spirited, excited teen-agers. The San Diego event, which ended Saturday, is part of an annual high school engineering contest organized by FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It drew dozens of high school teams for an event that requires students to spend six weeks building robots to scrimmage against each other in a game.

Miss Daisy was a regional winner

Miss Daisy was a regional winner

I work as a newspaper reporter in Finland, and I haven’t heard of anything like this in Europe. I was amazed by the passion and enthusiasm that FIRST has inspired among the high school students. These students help each other, love what they are doing, and show it.

The student-built robots don’t look like something you’d see in a sci-fi movie. These robots are heavy plastic boxes, about four-feet tall, that whirl on wheels. Others look like modified shopping carts.

The robots in the 2009 competition were designed to play a game called Lunacy, which is played on a small court. The robots are supposed to scoop up “orbit balls” as if they are on the moon collecting moon rocks. During the first 15 seconds of each match, the robots play the game by themselves in autonomous mode. Six robots compete at a time, divided into two teams selected five minutes before each match. In those five minutes, the teams must work out their winning strategies. This cooperation encourages “gracious professionalism“, a term that has been coined by FIRST co-founder Woodie Flowers.

All teams must use the same basic electronics and motors. The rest they must create and build quickly, with just a couple of thousand dollars. But these teen-agers actually get to build… a ROBOT!

FIRST founder Dean Kamen, the entrepreneur (and Xconomist) who invented the Segway, visited the San Diego competition Friday. He told the crowd that Lunacy is intended to pay homage to Apollo 11 this year, while NASA observes its 40th anniversary of landing a man on the moon. In welcoming competitors and guests, Kamen said the goal of the competition is to get American kids excited about science and engineering. He asked rhetorically: “Are we creating a culture that ensures that the hearts and minds of those generations after us will come to know that science is really a language of discovery? Are we making science cool?”

first-sd-robotics1During the competition, the audience, parents, and friends can visit the pits—they just need to wear safety glasses—and watch the students as they scramble to make repairs to their robots. That’s an opportunity you won’t get in a car race or a sports event.

Winners don’t get picked only by the number of balls collected, but by their team’s overall skill. The Regional Chairman’s Award, which is the most prestigious prize in the regional competition, was given Saturday to The Holy Cows, a team from San Diego’s High Tech High School, and their robot, Daisy May. Their motto is “Leading the Herd”. The High Tech High team advances to the FIRST championship competition that is scheduled for April 16th-18th in Atlanta.

The Midnight Mechanics, a team from the UC San Diego-affiliated Preuss School won the regional engineering inspiration award. The other robots and teams named as regional winners were:

Miss Daisy, Wissahickon High School, Ambler, PA.

Titan-BOT, Eastlake High School, Chula Vista, CA.

SWIFT, Plateau Valley High School, Collbran, CO

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