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Competition Heats Up for Kennedy's FIRST Robotics Teams
04.01.11
 
Robot performs at competition.

Image: About 60 high school teams participate in the "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," or FIRST, competition at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Photo credit: NASA/Glenn Benson
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Kennedy Director Bob Cabana checks out the Bionic Tigers' robot.

Image: NASA Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana checks out the robot designed by the Bionic Tigers team at the Florida regional FIRST Robotics competition. Photo credit: NASA/Glenn Benson
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Team Horsepower competes robot.

Image: Team Horsepower competes in the FIRST Robotics competition at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Photo credit: NASA/Glenn Benson
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Pink Team works on robot.

Image: The Pink Team shows off its robot to Kennedy Space Center’s Deputy Director Janet Petro and Engineering Director Pat Simpkins. Photo credit: NASA/Glenn Benson
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Robotics team builds police robot.

Image: Kennedy Space Center’s Engineering Directorate and students from the FIRST Robotics Pink Team developed a life-saving robot for the Rockledge, Fla., Police Department. Photo credit: For NASA
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Being a member of a NASA Kennedy Space Center sponsored or mentored FIRST Robotics team requires more than just panache . . . it takes teamwork, skill, communication and a whole lot of brain power to build and compete some of the most unique and capable robots in just six weeks.

Kennedy's house team, known as the Pink Team, consists of high school students from Rockledge, Cocoa Beach and Viera. In early March, the team was on the winning alliance in the Florida FIRST Robotics Competition, where they also took home the Industrial Design Award sponsored by General Motors. Next, they went on to the Washington, D.C., regional March 25-26, where they secured another win.

"Our kids were really excited. Not only did they have the chance to see our nation's capital and meet a host of new friends, nearly half had the opportunity to see snow for the first time," said team mentor Andy Bradley of Kennedy's Engineering Directorate. "It also was interesting to see that the D.C. teams were excited to learn the Pink Team was attending. Our reputation of being a fun and outgoing group precedes us. . . it's hard to be uptight while wearing a pink outfit, donning a fuchsia wig and dancing with 50 other similarly dressed people."

It's much more than just designing, fabricating, building and testing. Team members participate in community outreach programs, such as Habitat for Humanity, and raise money for their travel costs by hosting car washes and wrapping presents during the holidays, said Bradley.

Kaitlin, student chief of the Pink Team's pit crew and official spokesperson for the team, won the FIRST Deans List Finalist Award at the Florida competition. Kaitlin also is a member of the PD Bot Team, which recently created a robot for the Rockledge Police Department.

"She is in those positions of leadership not just because she was selected, but because she works so hard and contributes so much," said Bradley.

The Bionic Tigers team, sponsored by NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP) at Kennedy, consists of students from Cocoa High and Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy. Bill Benson of LSP said the competition benefits both students and mentors.

"Theoretically, it's possible that these students might show up a few years from now to work for NASA or one of our contractors," Benson said. "The more immediate benefit, for us, is hands-on project management experience for our younger engineers. They go from inception to completion, manage a time schedule, personnel and personality differences. It really is a good leadership laboratory for both the mentors and the student leadership."

Along with perfecting their robot, students on the Bionic Tigers team play a vital role in the organization and logistics associated with travel, community outreach and fundraising.

Next up for the Bionic Tigers is the Smokey Mountain regional competition in Knoxville, Tenn., March 31 through April 2. Also attending that competition is the Horsepower team, which is mentored by Kennedy employees. It includes students from Merritt Island High, Edgewood Junior/Senior High, Merritt Island Christian School, Jefferson Middle and Brevard County home schools.

"FIRST Robotics takes science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) out of the books and classrooms and presents it in an incredibly fun way," said mentor David Bush of Kennedy's Center Operations Directorate.

Bush said FIRST also places emphasis on teamwork, gracious professionalism and helping out the competition.

"Teams are always giving technical advice to each other, lending tools and parts," said Bush. "It really is amazing to see the environment at a FIRST competition . . . the kids really do get the message."

When asked to describe his team with one word, Bush thought it near impossible, so he said, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," which in literal terms means, "Atoning for educability through delicate beauty."

If they do well in Knoxville, the Bionic Tigers and Horsepower teams could potentially travel to the national championship in St. Louis, where they would go head-to-head with the Pink Team in late April.

Additional Brevard County teams include: ComBBAT from Astronaut and Titusville high schools; Team Voltage from Melbourne High; Purple Haze from Space Coast High; PiraTech from Palm Bay High; Bionic Bears from Bayside Engineering and Technology Academy; Team 3332 from Melbourne Central Catholic and Palm Bay Municipal Charter high schools; and Team 3376 from Satellite High.

"It's easy to become discouraged about the future," Bradley said. "But when you meet the wonderful kids in FIRST Robotics -- and I've met them by the thousands -- hope is restored. We really do have someone to which we can pass the torch."

 
 
Rebecca Regan
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center