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March 9, 2005
New Orleans high school teams traveled to Duluth, Ga., last week for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Peachtree regional competition. For three days, 49 teams from across the country participated in an intense and spirited competition.

Teams from the New Orleans Center for Science and Mathematics, Marion Abramson High School, O. Perry Walker High School and John F. Kennedy High School represented New Orleans in the competition. Students were able to participate with help from grants from NASA's Louisiana Space Grant Consortium, and sponsorship from various companies and individuals throughout the city.

Although students from the four schools were competitors, the teams collaborated and supported each other throughout the FIRST season. This year was the rookie season for teams from O. Perry Walker, Abramson High School and John F. Kennedy High School. The team from the New Orleans Center for Science and Math participated in the 2004 FIRST season and helped other teams learn about the program.

Each year FIRST presents a game problem and identical parts kits to each team. Team members spend six weeks working with teachers, engineers and other mentors to build a robot capable of performing tasks for the competition.

The New Orleans teams showed technical skill and strong robot design skills during the competition. Teams from Abramson High School and the New Orleans Center for Science and Math were seeded high enough at the end of preliminary rounds to continue to the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, respectively.

FIRST isn't just about the robots, however. One of the most important aspects of the program is the student/mentor relationship. NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center (SSC) Engineer Dawn Davis served as a mentor for the Abramson High School robotics team. A New Orleans native and resident, Davis found the New Orleans' schools participation in FIRST was the perfect opportunity for her to mentor students in her city.

As a mentor, Davis helped the students design and build their robot and helped the team develop strategy for competition. Micah Leonard, an Abramson senior who spends half his school day studying at the New Orleans Center for Science and Math, said Davis and the other mentors working with his team inspired him to pursue his dream of a career in engineering.

"I loved seeing how much they enjoy their work even when a problem happens that is hard to solve," Leonard said. "They really love doing this. It's almost like it's not a job to them. It's getting to build and create and that's what I want." Leonard plans to attend a Louisiana university next year to major in environmental and civil engineering.

FIRST not only inspires students. Davis said she also learned a lot. "I was really amazed at how quickly the students were learning new things," Davis said. "I also learned a lot from the other engineers." Participating in FIRST and collaborating with other engineers was a form of professional development, Davis said.

It seems every FIRST mentor has stories about students who were inspired by FIRST – not just academically. Andrea Spreter, a physics teacher and robotics team mentor at Abramson High School, said one student who was afraid to talk to others now has the confidence to talk to competition judges and students who didn't realize the value of a strong work ethic are now dedicated team members. The robot becomes a vehicle for important life lessons and new experiences. For most of the New Orleans students, the competition was their first experience with robotics; for many, it was their first trip out of their city. Spreter said the competition was a great experience not only because students learned science and technical skills, but because they were exposed to new people and places.

This year's competition is over for the New Orleans schools, the students are eager to begin planning for next year's FIRST season. Students who will return to compete next year are figuring out how they can improve their teams, and graduating seniors are ready to help their old teams.

"I plan to be here next year as much as I can, trying to help out in any way that I can," Leonard said. "I plan on staying involved with FIRST for a very long time."

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