Robotics
6:35 am
Tue April 26, 2011

Student-made robots take over Chaifetz Arena. Next stop? The Edward Jones Dome!

This week in St. Louis, close to 9,000 high school students from five countries will compete in the FIRST Robotics Championship.

Teams of student-built, remote-control robots will take to the field at the Edward Jones Dome. Organizers hope the competition will draw more than 20,000 spectators and generate at least $18 million in local spending.

Véronique LaCapra was at the St. Louis Regional event in March and has this inside look at the competition.

“And the robots are off!”

It’s the final day of the FIRST Robotics Regional competition at the Chaifetz Arena. Six remote-control robots are trying to outmaneuver one another on a playing field about half the size of a basketball court.

Using long mechanical arms, the 150 pound robots try to grab red, white and blue inner-tube-like shapes and hang them on pegs – some as high as 10 feet off the ground.

Directing the robots with laptops and game controllers are the high school students who spent six intense weeks designing and building them.

Chirag Doshi is a senior at Gateway Institute of Technology, a St. Louis magnet school for science, math and engineering.

“It’s all about strategy right now!” Doshi says as he directs a robot.

This is his fourth year in the competition.

“I love math and science at the same time and so it just kind of clicked that, hey, why not join the robotics team,” Doshi says.

Check out this video excerpt of a FIRST Robotics St. Louis Regional match:

Segway inventor Dean Kamen started FIRST Robotics 20 years ago. He says America needs to find ways to get more young people interested in science.

“We’re an organization that is dedicated to convincing kids, all kids, particularly women and minorities, that science, engineering, inventing, problem solving, is every bit as fun, every bit as accessible, every bit as rewarding, and a whole lot more likely to lead to great careers for them than sports or entertainment,” Kamen says.

Learning more than math and science

Normandy High School junior Bianca Bailey says she really didn’t even like math and science in the beginning, but saw other kids at her school really getting into this robotics thing.

“So I’m like, I’m going to try this and see if it can build my math and science skills,” Bailey says. “So I’m in it now, and I like it.”

Ninfa Matiase coaches FIRST Robotics at Normandy. She says the predominantly African American high school in north St. Louis County sometimes has trouble funding its team. Entering the competition means buying pricey equipment and software. It can cost upwards of $5,000.

But Matiase is committed to the program.

“Even though I’m a biology teacher, not an engineer, don’t know anything about wiring and things, I just show the kids, well, see, if I can do it, you guys can do it too, so,” Matiase says.

Matiase says engineering a robot gives students a real-life application of the math and science they’re taught in school. And they learn something else.

What is that?

“How to get along and work together! Because it’s like…they need to learn that this is like a working environment, when you might not like somebody, but you need to learn how to work with it, otherwise you lose your job,” Matiase says.

Sharing the experience

Evan Mensinger is a junior at Hazelwood Central High School in Florissant. He’s co-captain of the Robohawks, one of the St. Louis Regional winning teams. Mensinger says he used to want to be an engineer, but now, he’s not so sure.

“I mean, I could be an engineer and go on and do my own thing like that, have a career of my own,” Mensinger says. “Or I can become a teacher, and try and – this made me want to go on and try and get this kind of experience for other kids.”

Mensinger and the other Regional winners will get another chance to consider their options at the FIRST Robotics Championship this week.

More information and extra features:

The FIRST Robotics Championship starts tomorrow and runs through Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome. You can see photos and video of the St. Louis Regional event within this story.

And, tune in to Saint Louis On the Air this Thursday for more on this week’s competition.