US First Competition Teams Up Industry With High Schoolers

Providing role models is the aim; robots are the game

PEP bands blare, cheering sections try to drown each other out, and an occasional team mascot wanders around the Nashua High School gym looking like a refugee from Disneyland.

But this isn't a state high-school basketball tournament, or a two-ringed circus - though all attention in the uproarious building is riveted on two octagonal rings dominating the gymnasium floor.

Inside the rings, the players whir, click, and sometimes sputter as they gobble up multicolored soccer balls and shoot, dump, or otherwise transport them into five-foot-high goals in the center of each octagon. Each ball in the top of the goal yields three points; those pushed into a holding area at the base are worth one apiece.

At three stations around the rings, intense, baseball-capped handlers work hand-held joysticks, trying to steer their robotic all-stars into position to pump more balls into the goal or perhaps ram an unwary opponent.

Over the din, an announcer calls out the matches and their results - the Honeywell Commercial Flight Systems Div./Cortez High School team, from Phoenix has just blanked Powersoft/MIT/Boston Latin High School in a seeding match for the finals.

This well-organized jumble of activity crescendoes over the three days of the third annual US First Competition held late last month. For all its hoopla, it is a contest that, as founder Dean Kamen loves to reiterate, puts the emphasis where it belongs - on intellectual skills, not brawn.

Mr. Kamen, a youthful inventor and entrepreneur whose interests range from medical technology to helicopters, didn't organize US First because he looked around one day and found he couldn't get the highly educated personnel his companies require. ``I have all the smart engineers I need,'' Kamen says, sitting in his Manchester, N.H., office, surrounded by photos and artifacts of his varied endeavors, including one of the intricate high-tech clocks he builds. ``But what's the point if you're in a society that needs guards at every door?'' he adds.

With US First, Kamen hopes to do no less than ``change the culture of the US.'' A key to this, he says, is a partnership between large corporations - the repositories of technological brilliance and promotional know-how - and the nation's high schools, which can either turn out kids capable of building a better society or of weakening it through violence and crime. Kids need heroes other than rock stars and athletes, Kamen says, and working shoulder-to-shoulder with accomplished engineers might help supply some.

Big companies spend millions to sponsor the Olympics or professional sports, Kamen says, but ``where's the Olympic committee for smarts?'' he asks. He hopes to recruit more and more firms to sponsor US First teams. This year's competition had 44 participants; last year there were 25. Kamen says increased corporate participation is likely to spur interest among universities, too. He envisions regional robot tournaments and local leagues that mirror the structures of popular sports. If it all pans out, he says, a generation may yet know who won the last Nobel Prize for physics, not just the last Super Bowl.

In the six weeks leading up to the Nashua competition, teams of high school students and corporate engineers work frantically to assemble a ``robo-athlete'' from a kit sent to them by US First. There are size specifications and rules about shipping the robot and running the tournament. But the chief aim, Kamen says, is to assemble the most impressive machine possible. Components include some top-flight gear, such as a wireless remote control system contributed by Motorola and E-Systems. Both students and their often highly paid teammates put in hundreds of hours on evenings and weekends designing and building - and often redesigning and rebuilding - their entrants.

Corporate sponsors put up a $5,000 entrance fee. Kamen says his contacts in participating companies often complain that the bill is much more than that when employees' time is included. ``But they all come back,'' he adds.

In creating US First, Kamen drew inspiration from MIT's popular mechanical engineering course 2.70, an undergraduate offering that also pits team-built robots against one other, though the scale of those machines is smaller and the technology less sophisticated.

The experience of building a US First ``robo-athlete'' is a crash course in modern technology. ``I adored the program,'' said Brian Carrico, a student from Aiken High School in Cincinnati. ``We learned to use CAD [computer-assisted design] systems and all this stuff.'' He was particularly impressed by the friendliness of the engineers from Proctor & Gamble, his team's corporate sponsor. Carrico's own application to engineering school has already been sent off. Such sentiments were common in the cavernous room that served as a ``pit'' area for teams readying their robots for the next bout.

``Watch the kids as they see you do creative stuff with technology,'' Kamen comments. ``If you can't get them excited about this, we should all hang it up.'' If this year's US First Competition was any indication, there is no need for that.

The 1994 winner was the ``orange cannon,'' a ball-shooting robot built by the Proctor & Gamble/Walnut High School team from Cincinnati. Other prizes included the Chairman's Award for excellence in teamwork and in documenting design and assembly work. That went to the Xerox Corporation/Joseph C. Wilson Magnet High School team from Rochester, N.Y.

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