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Robots Are Coming to Campus

FIRST and UVM partner to bring robot builders from Michigan, Mass and VT

FIRST robot tech challenge
Spectators welcome! They call it "coopertition." High school teams from Michigan, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Vermont will gather at UVM to test themselves and their robots with and against each other this weekend. (Photo: Adriana M. Groisman)

On Saturday, February 23, 2013, twenty-eight teams from high schools in New England and the Midwest will gather at the University of Vermont to compete, dance, test and play.

But they won’t be playing basketball, dancing the Macarena, or taking the SAT.

They’ll be running robots.

In its first-ever appearance in Vermont, the global sensation FIRST Tech Challenge will be hosted at UVM’s Davis Center, bringing together teams of 7th-12th graders to compete head-to-head, robot-against-robot (and robot-with-robot) using a sports model.

The competition will be “heated and exciting” says UVM’s Doug Dickey, who is leading the event -- and it’s free and open to the public.

The FIRST Tech Challenge will be held at UVM’s Davis Center with opening ceremonies hosted by UVM President Thomas Sullivan at 10 a.m. and with competitive robotics matches throughout the day.

Aiming for Saint Louis

A bit like car racing, the “pits” for teams and their coaches will open at 7 a.m. to put their machines through final tune-ups before their matches -- with inspections by referees soon after.

Nine teams will be coming from Vermont, including the Robo Raiders from East Montpelier, Hammerdillos for Lyndon Center, Radical Robots from Springfield, and Postive Thinking from Middlebury.

The top teams will advance to the International FIRST Robotics World Championship in St. Louis, Mo., in April. More than 300,000 students, coaches, and mentors from fifty countries around the world participate in three levels of FIRST challenges, many of them aiming for a spot at the championships.

Ring hunt

Last fall, FIRST Tech Challenge teams, with about 10 students each, started designing, building, and programming their robots. On Saturday, they’ll compete on a 12-by-12-foot diamond field, playing a game called “Ring It Up!”

Two randomly assigned teams will work together, as an alliance, to compete against two others teams. Each alliance will try to score points by having their robots pick up plastic rings and place them onto pegs in the center of the field.

“It’s basically a big tic-tac-toe board with plastic donuts,” explains Doug Dickey, assistant dean of UVM’s College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, who is the state director for the new competition.

Each match has a 30-second “autonomous period” where the robots must try to collect rings entirely on their own, followed by a two-minute “driver-controlled period” where two students from each team run the robots -- “a driver and a strategist,” says Dickey -- with video-game-like controllers.

The teams will also be challenged to detect and collect special weighted rings to earn a multiplier bonus on their score. The teams with the most points advance on to another round with another randomly selected partner.

The robots are built using a TETRIX platform made by LEGO. The parts are reusable from year-to-year, and each year a new game and challenge is presented to the students.

Engineering entrance

Teams -- which draw on the expertise of coaches and mentors, often local engineers, business people, and teachers -- are required to develop strategy and build robots based on sound engineering principles. Awards are given for the competition as well as community outreach, graceful sportsmanship, and design excellence.

“This is open-discovery problem solving,” says Dickey. “it’s real-world.”

And the competition appears to prepare high-schoolers for the real world. An analysis by Brandeis University showed that FIRST students are twice as likely to go on to major in science as their peers and three times more likely to major in engineering.

“These events are incredibly exciting and there is great sense of community,” says Dickey. “It’s in many ways the same as a varsity sport. They even wear outlandish costumes.”

But a major underlying goal is very serious, he says: “to better prepare young people for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.”

Founding FIRST

The team that has brought First Tech Challenge to Vermont numbers more than seventy volunteers, including UVM’s Doug Dickey; John Abele, the retired founder of Boston Scientific who lives in Vermont; Kristin Winer, the state referee; and Essex High School teacher Joe Chase.

FIRST, an acronym of “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” was founded in 1989 by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, perhaps most famous for creating the two-wheeled Segway. FIRST has held robotic competitions since 1992.

The mission of FIRST is “to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.”

For more information, visit: http://www.uvm.edu/~first/?Page=events.php or contact Doug Dickey, douglas.dickey@uvm.edu, (802) 656-4284.