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Robotics competition brings a Final Four feel to St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 22, 2010 - Like an NCAA basketball game, music blasted over loudspeakers and fans cheered for their favorite teams this weekend at Saint Louis University's Chaifetz Arena. In this case, though, the players on the court were robots, not athletes.

Teams of high school students from across Missouri and eight other states designed, built and drove these robots in pursuit of first place in the St. Louis regional competition of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST, well-known engineer and inventor of the Segway and numerous biomedical devices, made a surprise visit to St. Louis and was in the pit area talking to teams about their robots. Like a star athlete himself, Kamen drew a crowd, posed for photos and signed autographs.

Varsity sport of the 21st century

That FIRST is a sport is important to Kamen. "Sports have a bigger impact on kids in this country than just about anything," he said. Kamen would like to take that passion for sports and channel it into passion for science and technology.

"We used to be focused on excelling in the world not of sports and entertainment, but of science, technology, invention and innovation. We led the world in every field of technology. That's not a birthright. And it's not free. And it's not easy. It takes extraordinarily committed people to excel in those things," he said. Kamen worries that the United States is at risk of losing its edge in these fields. He sees FIRST as a way to help turn the tide.

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"Let's create a sport that will engage all kids, particularly women and minorities, and get them energized and focused and passionate about things where the real jobs are," he said. "There are millions of exciting careers out there for kids who are prepared." He wants FIRST to become "the ultimate varsity sport for the 21st century." Indeed, a much-repeated motto calls FIRST "the only sport where every player can turn pro."

But it's more than a feel-good motto. "Last week at one of the regionals, the CEO of a big aerospace company got up and said, 'Last year, we hired 100 engineers that we've been keeping track of since we sponsored them in high school,'" Kamen said. "It's just like scouting."

And it's not just companies getting involved. Universities sponsor many teams and last year gave out $12 million in scholarships to FIRST alumni. But Kamen laments that many high schools do not have FIRST teams. And those kids do not have access to these opportunities. While FIRST has grown from 28 teams in 1992 to 1,800 teams in 2010, Kamen knows much work is still to be done.

To illustrate how important these opportunities are, Kamen described how the students transform over the course of program. "At the kickoff, they look like a bunch of deer in the headlights," he said. "They get this pile of junk. It's very sophisticated junk, but there's no instruction booklet. They have to develop a strategy, run a mental model in their head and then figure out how to deliver it," he said.

"Six weeks goes by and now you don't see any kids in that pit area looking like a deer in the headlights. They are focused. They are confident. They are proud of what they did. They have developed relationships with serious adults. They are different people and it's astounding that you can do that that quickly," he said.

Gracious professionalism

During this year's game, called Breakaway, robots collide in efforts to score goals with soccer balls. Some specialize in defense, guarding their goals; others play offense guiding and kicking balls toward the goals. Many use pneumatics for kicking and some can kick the ball across much of the field. Occasionally, unlucky robots flip on a side, some while navigating the steep bumps and barriers on the field. Others topple after a fierce collision with a competitor. Parts fly off. Without question, FIRST robotics is a contact sport.

And yet, a spirit of sportsmanship pervades the entire event.

"Team 3284 needs an angle grinder," is heard over the public address system in the pit area, where teams work frantically to fix their robots and prepare them for the next round of competition. Minutes later, the announcer thanks members of team 2902 for lending their angle grinder. 

In addition, teams who may not know each other learn to work together as part of an alliance. Three teams on the red alliance compete against three teams on the blue alliance in a given round. But the alliances change, so an opposing robot in one round may be your teammate in the next. Winning the Saturday finals, the first-place alliance included the Metool Brigade from O'Fallon Township High School in O'Fallon, Ill., 4-H Laser Robotics from Camdenton, Mo., and Jackson Area Robotics from Jackson, Tenn.

Coming in first is a great accomplishment, but according to Kamen, maintaining a spirit of "gracious professionalism" throughout the competition is even more important. Kamen points out that in FIRST it wouldn't matter if every robot in competition went out on the field and fell apart. "It's not the robot you build over the six weeks that matters. It's the skills that you acquire that might let you build the first artificial heart or an engine that doesn't pollute," he said.

"Most of the robots are going to lose. But every kid is a winner because every kid on every team can turn pro. And if you're going to be a professional, we need to you to be intensely competitive while you are graciously professional."

Excellence off the field

Indeed, most of the awards given are not for first, second or third place, but for excellence in areas like industrial design, quality, team spirit, cooperation, safety and website design. The award considered the top prize in FIRST did not go to a team that made it to the finals this year, but to the team that best exemplified the values and spirit of FIRST. Gateway High School, a St. Louis public school, won the Regional Chairman's Award. Doug King, president of the St. Louis Science Center (a major sponsor of FIRST), expressed his pride in Gateway High School's FIRST team, Perpetual Chaos, and compared its accomplishment to running a small business.

As a veteran team, it has helped mentor rookie teams at other schools both around St. Louis and abroad (with a partnership with a team in Ireland). It raised money to fund the team, run a fall training camp, and has made a recruiting video to spread the word about FIRST. Now in its ninth year, the team has alumni returning to volunteer.

The Chairman's Award "is a great honor," said Frank Dressel, one of the team's four coaches and a math and engineering teacher at Gateway High School. "And it's an opportunity to get other teams in St. Louis public schools to join us."

Julia Evangelou Strait is a freelance science writer based in St. Louis.

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