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January 6, 2007

NASA Public Affairs Office
Stennis Space Center, MS 39529-6000


Twenty-nine high-school teams from four states – roughly 300 students, coaches and mentors – converged on NASA Stennis Space Center on Saturday, Jan. 6, to kick off the 2007 FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition season.

During the kickoff, FIRST presented a game problem and parts kits to Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Tennessee high-school teams who'll build robots for spring contests. The competition aims to inspire students in the pursuit of engineering and technology.

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 kickoff event held at Stennis Space Center's 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 "Rack n' Roll" challenge requires robots to lift inflatable pool tubes and hook them onto the "spider" arms of the rack, an octagonal, jungle gym-type structure. During each match, two alliances of three randomly selected teams will battle to score the most points by creating rows of the tubes hanging from the rack like a giant game of tick-tack-toe. The first 15 seconds of each match are an autonomous period, challenging students to program their robots to complete specific tasks on their own. After the autonomous mode, human players may step in and control their robots in strategies as varied as the matches are fierce.

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 NASA SSC Education Officer Dr. Dewey Herring. "FIRST Robotics is about professionalism, engaging young people and teaching them to be successful."

Because NASA advocates robotics and technology education, Stennis Space Center supports FIRST Robotics Competition by providing coaches, mentors, judges, referees and other volunteers. NASA also gave $284,000 in grants to 26 Louisiana and Mississippi teams for the 2007 competition season. In addition, NASA gave $150,000 to sponsor the first Bayou Regional FIRST Robotics competition in New Orleans, to be held March 8-10.

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.

Sandreka Jones, a 17-year-old senior at New Orleans' Charter Science and Math School, is a second-year member of the school's robotics team. Jones, who hopes to study biomedical engineering in college, said her FIRST Robotics involvement has provided her with "leadership and problem-solving skills. It's taught me a lot about how to work with people."

NASA's Katie Wallace, Stennis' FIRST coordinator and an engineer, calls the competition "a great opportunity to put math and science lessons into practice.

"FIRST gives practical application to all the theories that 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!"

Teams from the following Mississippi high schools are participating in the 2007 FIRST Robotics competition: Gulfport, Warren Central (Vicksburg), Provine (Jackson), Choctaw Central, Picayune Memorial-Pearl River Central (combined team), Mercy Cross (Biloxi), St. Stanislaus College (Bay St. Louis), Starkville Academy, Petal and H.W. Byers (Holly Springs).

The following Louisiana high schools also are fielding teams: New Orleans Charter Science and Math School, Scotlandville Magnet, O. Perry Walker (New Orleans), Salmen (Slidell), Bogalusa, Northshore (Slidell), Covington, McMain Magnet (New Orleans), St. Paul's (Covington), Hammond, Sara T. Reed (New Orleans), Slidell, Hahnville (Boutte), John Ehret (Marrero), Fontainebleau (Mandeville) and Edna Karr Magnet (New Orleans).

Lewis County High, Hohenwald, Tenn.; and Fort Walton Beach and Choctawhatchee high schools from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., are fielding teams and attended the kickoff at SSC.

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.

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