In order to win, these high school engineers must cooperate as well as compete
The competition starts the way many sporting events do, with rock music, cheerleaders, and screaming fans as referees and competitors take the field. But in this contest, the players are mechanical and the real brains stay out of the arena. They are the high school students who direct the robots they built and learned to control.Skip to next paragraph
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After competing in regional finals across the United States, more than 300 high school teams are gathering at Walt Disney's EPCOT Center in Orlando Fla., April 5-7 for the 2001 FIRST Robotics Competition national championship. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a national, nonprofit group created by noted physicist, engineer, and inventor Dean Kamen in 1989.
It's not just about building the best robot. The competition aims to inspire students, provide hands-on activities, foster teamwork, and give students access to engineers who help them build the robots.
"Teamwork is a really big factor in this project," says Ben Surpless, faculty coordinator for the team from Bellarmine College Preparatory High School in San Jose, Calif. "And that's not just within the individual teams." For instance, there's a website where teams can post problems they're having with their robots and ask for help. Other teams will share how they solved similar problems. "The kids really learn how to work together," he says.
More than 530 teams have been involved in the program this year. It began with a kickoff workshop in January, when the details of this year's competition were announced. (The robots' tasks change each year.) High school teams worked with engineers for six weeks to design, construct, and test their robots. Thirteen regional competitions in March winnowed down the field.
The contest is as much about strategy as it is about engineering. Each team joins three other teams for each match. Each of the four teams receives the score that they all earn by working together.
First, the four teams agree on their strategy. They weigh the abilities of each robot. Points can be earned lots of ways. The robots can place balls into seven-foot-high goals (1 point each). They can balance larger balls on top of the goal (10 points). The total score is doubled if a goal itself can be balanced on the teeter-totter bridge in the middle of the playing field. If both goals are balanced, the score is quadrupled. A robot can be carried on a stretcher into the "end zone" (10 points for the stretcher, 10 for the robot). Robots placed in the end zone at the end of the match earn 10 points. And stopping the match before the two-minute time limit ends can double or even triple the score.
Each team is allied with three others for several qualifying matches. Top scorers - still in four-team alliances - compete in an elimination tournament. The teams may never meet until just before a match.
So teams have a lot to think about. Some team alliances decide to try to race down to the end zone and stop the match in the first 30 seconds. This triples their score. If all four robots can get into the end zone, 4 robots x 10 points = 40; tripled = 120. That's a good score in a qualifying round, but probably won't win the championship. And robots can't just streak from one end of the playing field to the other. There is a dividing rail midfield, with a teeter-totter bridge to cross. Some teams work to fill the goals and balance one or both goals on the bridge. Most try to get some of the robots into the end zone and end the match early.
Robots must have a variety of skills. Some can pick up balls and put them in goals. Others are good at pulling a teeter-totter bridge up and down to go across. Some are designed to pull goals or stretchers across the field or help right a fellow robot that has tipped over. And some robots can do it all.
Teams receive kits with motors and other parts for the robots. But every robot ends up with its own personality. Each high school team not only has students and faculty advisers, but also sponsoring organizations. These might be universities, or high-tech companies. Sponsors may also provide engineers to help.