'Bot' competition inspires technical teamwork around the country

With six intensive weeks of designing and building behind them, the 800 teams in this year's FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition are driving and debugging their creations through a series of regional competitions. The teams are vying for a spot at the final elimination round, to be held April 10 through 12, at Houston's new state-of-the-art NFL stadium.

"This is not your typical science fair," says John E. Abele, chairman of FIRST's board of directors. "With those, you draw the best of the best. Here, we're really inviting anyone to test out not just their technical know-how, but their ability to cooperate and collaborate as part of a team. We aim for a nice mix."

Dubbed the Super Bowl of Smarts, the contest engages close to 20,000 high school students from the US, Canada, Britain, and Brazil.

The teams comprise about 25 students and a handful of engineering mentors, and are sponsored by corporate and community partners. The game itself changes from year to year, and teams must work under common budget, material, and time constraints.

This year's challenge, the Stack Attack, demands a robot that can score points by collecting and stacking plastic storage containers.

"We call it a competition, but it's really a 'co-op-etition,' " Mr. Abele says. "The idea is to simulate the real-world design environment." Between rounds, teams must often share ideas, equipment, and practice fields. The most prestigious award, Abele says, goes to the team that gets the largest number of people involved and demonstrates not only a solid design, but effective collaboration and sportsmanship.

Robert Cornacchioli, director of instructional technology and media services for the Shrewsbury, Mass., school system, heads up the steering committee for Team 457 from Shrewsbury.

"We've got about 30 traveling members on our team and a hardcore group of very involved parents," Mr. Carnacchioli says. His team has adopted its own motto. " 'We not me' is the core value of our team. We let the consensus - the kids, not any one person - decide the direction of the work," he says.

FIRST was founded by inventor Dean Kamen. To learn more, visit www.usfirst.org.

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