Robotics Teams Meet at FIRST Kickoff
A high school student stands on a platform with a large pyramid shape built of plastic pipes as another student on the floor holds a smaller plastic pyramid in place in the center of the larger pyramid
Despite the metallic whirs and rattles, Wayne Tillman knew he wasn't watching "Battle Bots." This was even better -- he would get a chance to help build his own 'bot!

Image to right: A student from O. Perry Walker High School works with his team's robot at the FIRST robotics kick-off at NASA's Stennis Space Center. Credit: NASA

The 18-year-old senior at New Orleans' O. Perry Walker High School was watching robots run through their paces at NASA's Stennis Space Center, where Mississippi and Louisiana veteran competitors and their rookie counterparts recently attended a kickoff. The event began the 2005 FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition season. At SSC, teams and their engineer mentors met, networked and got an overview of this year's competition challenge. Finally, they picked up their kits containing the basic elements of the robots they'd build to meet that challenge. Regional competitions began March 3; the championship will be held April 21-23 in Atlanta.

Bouncing through turns, showing the dings and wear of past battles, the robots at SSC were helping Tillman and his teammates envision the robot they are now working to build. Each roughly the size and shape of a large lawnmower, the robots were built from kits and programmed by regional high school teams who were among the challengers in last year's FIRST Robotics competition.

SSC employee-mentors volunteer about 17 hours a week to local teams during the building phase. NASA's Bo Clarke, Christine Powell, James Cluff and James Barnett will mentor Team 364 from Gulfport High School. Helping Team 1421 (a combined team from Mississippi's Picayune Memorial and Pearl River Central high schools) are NASA's Scott Olive and Roy Worthy, along with Mississippi Space Services' Alan Forsman and the U.S. Geological Survey's Erma Nilsson. NASA's Dawn Davis mentors Team 1534 from New Orleans' Marion O. Abramson High School.

This year's challenge focuses on the tetrahedron -- a four-faced, pyramid-shaped object. During each match, two alliances of three randomly selected teams battle to move, lift and stack the tetrahedrons around the playing field. The first 15 seconds of each match are an autonomous period, challenging students to program the robot to complete specific tasks without the help of a human controller. After the 15-second autonomous mode, human players may step in and control their robots.

Steve Phillips, senior project engineer with DuPont Inc. in Pass Christian, Miss. (a sponsor for FIRST Robotics), said the rules for this year's competition demand a tough strategy. "Having three robots in the field of play (versus last year's two) will require the teams to protect their wheels and protect their goals. One robot will have to be sacrificed so the other two can maneuver and block. It's going to be crowded."

Although FIRST teams build robots and participate in competition, those involved with the program are quick to mention that FIRST is about much more than robot parts and competition standings.

"The robot is not the ultimate objective of this competition," said Dewey Herring, NASA SSC Education Officer. "FIRST Robotics is about professionalism, engaging young people and teaching them to be successful."

FIRST founder and inventor Dean Kamen created FIRST to inspire students to pursue careers in science and technology. Through FIRST, students work side by side with engineers to learn skills that will help them throughout their education and after graduation. Students learn practical engineering skills, teamwork, problem solving and, most importantly, something FIRST calls gracious professionalism.

Phillips said FIRST Robotics competitions are a valuable tool for his industry. Because engineering "lacks glamour" as a potential career, FIRST can spark students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"I got involved in this competition because it works with machines and robots, programming them to do something," Tillman said. "That's the best. It's really like looking into the future of technology."

Tillman wants to study computer technology or architectural engineering. "I feel like what I learn in FIRST will really help me in college," he said. "I used to watch 'Battle Bots' on TV. Now I’m going to be doing it. Cool!"

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Paul Foerman, NASA Stennis Space Center