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Robots Team Up with Human Players for Annual Competition

That’s the word of the weekend for the more than 1,000 high school students who spent weeks working together and have traveled to Richmond, Va., to prove that their robot is the one to beat this year.

Robotics Competition.
Image Right: Ben Weinmann, a senior at Warwick High, Newport News, Va., and his mentor, Matt Wilbur, an Army employee with Langley’s Aeroelasticity Branch, put final touches on their robot Thursday morning. Their team, the NASA Knights, are sponsored by NASA Langley Research Center. Credit: Sean Smith/NASA
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This annual robotics competition -- called For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) -- will be rolling March 1 and 2 at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center and is open to the public free of charge.

The 66 teams, including the NASA Knights – sponsored by NASA Langley Research Center, in Hampton, Va. – spent today making final adjustments to their robots and sending their creations through the course on practice runs, preparing for the real competition Friday and Saturday.

FIRST Robotics challenges teams of high school students and their mentors to design, assemble and test a robot capable of performing a specified task. The teams have only six weeks, a standard “kit of parts” and a common set of rules.

This year, the game is called “Rack ‘n’ Roll.” To earn points, teams must use their robots to either pick up inner tubes and hang them “tic-tac-toe-style” on a metal rack or they can use their ramps and strength to lift opposing robots off the ground.

The robots’ success in this practice run was a relief to many students.

“I’m really proud our robot worked today!” said Joey Wright, from George Washington High School, in Danville, Va. “Our goal is to get as many inner tubes hooked as we can tomorrow.”

Robotics competition. Image Left: This year’s FIRST challenge is called “Rack ‘n’ Roll.” To earn points, teams must use their robots to either pick up inner tubes and hang them “tic-tac-toe-style” on a metal rack or they can use their ramps and strength to lift opposing robots off the ground. Credit: Sean Smith/NASA

The practice gave other teams a chance to work out the final kinks.

“We’ve been working really hard all morning, putting last touches on our robot,” said Jonathan Foss, from Kecoughtan High School, in Hampton, Va. “We still have to do more work on our ramp, since our main strategy is to get points by picking up other robots.”

This seventh annual Virginia FIRST Competition is sponsored by NASA Langley and Virginia Commonwealth University. It is one of 37 regional competitions in the U.S, Brazil, Canada and Israel. The national competition will be held April 12-14 in Atlanta, Ga.

There are 1,305 teams of over 32,500 high school students competing nationwide and representing seven countries – Brazil, Canada, Israel, Mexico, Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States.

“This event is a great way to get young people excited about science and engineering,” said Dan Norfolk of Langley’s Systems Engineering Directorate and a mentor on the NASA Knights Team. “My daughter is a prime example: She got involved with FIRST as a team photographer her first year, but found an interest in fabrication and electronics. Now, she’s interested in going into a career in computer engineering!”

According to an independent survey conducted by Brandeis University’s Center for Youth and Communities, FIRST Robotics Competition participants are more than three times as likely to major in engineering than non-FIRST students with similar backgrounds and academic experiences. Also according to this survey, the FIRST participants are roughly 10 times as likely to have had an apprenticeship, internship or co-op job in their freshman year of college and significantly more likely to expect to achieve a post-graduate degree.

Robotics competition. Image Right: Jeff Seaton, deputy chief information officer at Langley, has been involved with FIRST Robotics for 10 years. As part of the regional planning committee and emcee of the event, he is putting his background as a NASA robotics engineer to creative use. Credit: Sean Smith/NASA

“I definitely plan to use what I’ve learned here in the future,” said Mike Stevens, from Grafton High School, in Yorktown, Va. “I’m going to pursue a robotics career at Virginia Tech. It’s like a rolling ball – I’ve got the momentum going right now and engineering is one of my passions, so I’m continuing to roll with it.”

To make this production successful, there are more than 45,000 volunteers nationwide, running the clocks, keeping the match schedule straight and assisting the teams with their robots.

“This is my fourth year volunteering,” explained Janis Hunt, Tessada & Associates/Langley’s Office of Strategic Communications and Education. “It’s great to see these young people with the drive and desire to work together. Even though they’re competing, they want to compete fair and square. I’m totally hooked!”

FIRST was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, the inventor of Segway Human Transporter. According to Kamen, the vision for FIRST is “to create a world where science and technology are celebrated…where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes.”

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By: Lindsay Crouch
The Researcher News
Langley Research Center
Managing Editor and Responsible NASA Official: H. Keith Henry
Editor and Curator: Denise Adams