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Robotics fans from around the world have field day at Edward Jones Dome

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 2, 2011 - More than 11,000 young robotics enthusiasts from 48 states and 29 countries converged on the Edward Jones Dome for four days of team competition and excitement at the International FIRST -- For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology -- championship last week. The event, sponsored by the St. Louis Science Center and FIRST, includes challenges for teams from kindergarten through high school.

The Saint Louis area had 34 teams competing in the four categories and came out with several winners. The Perpetual Chaos Team from St. Louis Gateway Tech earned the "Coopertition" award, the iBrick First Lego League Team from St. Albans got the judges "Save the Day" award, and 14 area Junior Lego League Teams won special recognition. Luther Banner, a junior from Hazelwood High School and member of their Robo Hawks team, was one of only 10 students awarded the "Dean's List Award" for outstanding leadership.

The championships are Mardi Gras, March Madness and robots all rolled into one, said Lisa Bedian, a spokesperson for the St. Louis FIRST organization and volunteer for 11 years. They are modeled after competitive sports, with all the attending hoopla. The teams wear imaginative uniforms of their own design, have designated cheering sections and move through the arena waving flags and singing songs.

"Look at these kids around you. They're great, they're smart, and they're having a wonderful time," Bedian said.

But to get to this point, they have all put in months of hard intellectual work making and programming robots to perform whatever tasks the annual challenge requires.

Teamwork Extends To Competing Teams

The FIRST program emphasizes not only scientific accomplishments but cooperation and "gracious professionalism." If competing team members need a tool, you are expected to loan it to them. This year, Orthodox Jewish team members from Israel could not operate their robots after sundown on Friday. Volunteers stood in for them in Saturday's competition.

The competition has four divisions. The FIRST Lego League (FLL) teams from grades 4-8 make robots based on Lego Mindstorm technology and participate in 2.5-minute competitions on a themed playing field with many tasks and hurdles. In addition, they must do research and presentations on the year's designated theme. This year's theme was called Body Forward and required the teams to develop an innovative solution to a real world biomedical engineering problem of their choosing. The K-3 Junior FLL teams also do research and presentations about biomedical engineering and must make models of their solutions with moving parts.

Older students make computerized robots from kits supplied by FIRST. For this year's FIRST Technical challenge called "Get Over It,", small teams (up to 10 members) built robots that could move over bumpy terrain with obstacles to complete a set of tasks and competitive elements.

Strategies Vary

The FIRST Robotics Competition is a rock-'em, sock-'em game deploying 150-pound droids combating each other on a field half the size of a basketball court. Teams of three entrants each battled this year to see which side could hang the most colored inner tubes in the correct order on pegs on their side of the field.

With music blaring on the loudspeakers, the red and blue teams lined up on their respective ends. For the first 15 seconds, the human operators were hands-off, while their robots raced to pick up and hang yellow tubes as high as possible. Then the operators and their joysticks took over for almost two more minutes, in attempts to duplicate the FIRST logo -- from left to right a red triangle, a white circle, and a blue square -- as many times and as high as possible. To earn bonus points, in the last 10 seconds teams could send a mini-bot scampering up a designated pole.

The challenges involve strategy as well as engineering skills. The University City team, the RoboLions, played defense. It scurried around the floor knocking inner tubes out of the reach of competing robots. The offensive Lightning Lancers, a combined 34-member team of Lutheran High School students and home schoolers, had a double telescoping boom with three shafts that fit inside of each other that could extend and retract to be able to place the tubes on the highest level to get the most points.

The teams receive their kits containing parts, motors, computer chips and the like in January. They and their mentors work many hours after school and on weekends until the regional competitions at the end of March. Mentors often stay involved for many years. Steve Loeffler, mentor to the Raven Robotics of St. Charles, became involved seven years ago when his son Andy was a freshman on the team. Now Andy has been a mentor for three years himself.

The World Champions this year were the Cheesy Poofs from San Jose, Calif., WildStang from Schaumberg, Ill., and Greybots from Atascadero, Calif. The Tech Challenge winner was Robots and the Brain Bots, Inc. from Newtonville, Mass., and the First Lego League was the Sentinels from Oakville, Ontario.

The FIRST championships will be held again in St. Louis in 2012 and 2013. This year the event brought about 22,000 visitors to the city and will generate an estimated $18 million.

Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway Human Transporter, organized FIRST as a nonprofit in 1989 to inspire an appreciation of science and technology in young people and motivate them to pursue careers in those fields. An independent study showed that participants in FIRST programs were about twice as likely to pursue careers in science and technology as students with similar backgrounds and academic experiences.

Jo Seltzer writes about science for the Beacon. 

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