More than 300 students, coaches and mentors from Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida converged on NASA's Stennis Space Center on Saturday, Jan. 5, to kick off the 2008 FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition season.
During the kickoff, teams watched a live broadcast from FIRST's Manchester, N.H., headquarters that revealed this year's competition challenge. They also received parts kits from which each team – with the help of their engineer mentors – must build a robot to meet the challenge. The competition aims to inspire students in the pursuit of engineering and technology.
The kickoff event held at Stennis' visitor center, StenniSphere, begins a frenzied six weeks leading up to regional competitions in New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta and other cities around the nation. For months, the teams have gathered mentors, sponsors, tools, funds and other forms of support to design, build and program their robots.
This year's "Overdrive" game challenges teams to build robots that can speed in counterclockwise loops around a course while carrying, lifting or throwing large, inflatable "Trackballs." In a slightly twisted spinoff of a NASCAR race, teams can score points by crossing "finish lines" within their lane of traffic, or by placing their Trackballs on an overpass. This year's robots will operate in a new mode: supervisory control. Much like NASA's exploration rovers now roaming the surface of Mars, the robots can be programmed to perform autonomously until a human controller steps in.
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.
"FIRST provides students an intense, cooperative learning experience that mimics the real world of development and discovery," said Stennis' Education Officer Dr. Dewey Herring. "With guidance from mentors, students learn the value of investing themselves in their work, meeting personal responsibilities, sharing thoughts and ideas with team members, respecting the contributions of others and celebrating the victory of learning and accomplishing."
Because NASA advocates robotics and technology education, Stennis supports FIRST Robotics Competition by providing coaches, mentors, judges, referees and other volunteers. NASA also gave $117,000 in grants to Louisiana and Mississippi teams for the 2008 competition season. In addition, NASA gave $125,000 to sponsor the Bayou Regional FIRST Robotics competition in New Orleans, to be held in March, and will offer an additional $200,000 in in-kind support by season's end.
FIRST founder and inventor Dean Kamen created FIRST to inspire students to study and pursue careers in science and technology. Through FIRST, students work side by side with engineers to learn skills that will help them in school and after graduation. Students learn practical engineering skills, team work, problem solving and most importantly, something FIRST calls gracious professionalism: an unorthodox mix of fierce competition and mutual gain.
Gulfport High School Senior Ryan Nazertian has been a Team Fusion member for four years. "What I get out of FIRST Robotics is everything I need for college, things like teamwork and using today's technology." He said FIRST helped steer him toward electrical engineering, his intended field of study at Mississippi State University.
NASA's Katie Wallace, Stennis' FIRST coordinator and an engineer, calls the competition a great way to put math and science studies into practice.
"FIRST gives practical application to all the theories they study in school," she said, "and gives them an opportunity to work with local engineers and businesses. It's a wonderful and exciting opportunity!"
Participating in the 2008 FIRST Robotics competition are the following Mississippi high school teams: Gulfport, Warren Central (Vicksburg), Provine (Jackson), Choctaw Central, Picayune-Pearl River Central (combined team), St. Stanislaus College (Bay St. Louis), St. Patrick Catholic (Biloxi), Starkville Academy, South Pontotoc, Petal, Pearl and H.W. Byers (Holly Springs).
The following Louisiana high schools also are fielding teams: New Orleans Charter Science and Math, O. Perry Walker Senior (New Orleans), Salmen (Slidell), Bogalusa, Northshore (Slidell), McMain Secondary (New Orleans), St. Paul's (Covington), Hammond, Sarah T. Reed Senior (New Orleans), Slidell, Hahnville (Boutte), St. Augustine (New Orleans), Carroll (Monroe), John Ehret (Marrero), Fontainebleau (Mandeville) and Edna Karr (New Orleans).
Two teams from Florida – Collegiate High (Niceville)-Fort Walton Beach High (combined team); and CHOICE IT Institute (Niceville) – also are fielding teams and attended the kickoff at Stennis.
For more information about FIRST Robotics, visit http://www.usfirst.org.
For more information about NASA's Robotics Education Project, visit http://robotics.arc.nasa.gov.
- end -