Next-Generation
Innovators
Define Robotics


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The 11th Annual New York City FIRST Robotics Competition challenged teams of students and their mentors to build a robotic arm that picks up colorful logo pieces from one end of the pit and hangs them on poles at the other end of the pit.

Innovation is the key to success and, if done right, innovation can help invent the future. Technological innovation begins with creative ideas and, as the 11th Annual New York City FIRST Robotics Competition showed, it often begins in the classroom as well.

It was this spirit of innovation in science and technology that was celebrated at the robotics competition at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, March 11–13, 2011, where students from over 100 schools around the world showcased their engineering prowess when they put their custom-built robots to the test.

The FIRST Robotics Competition is a program that challenges teams of students and their mentors to design and build a 130-pound robot in a six-week timeframe using a standard "kit of parts" and a common set of rules. Teams build robots from the parts and enter them in a series of robotics competitions designed by FIRST founder Dean Kamen. “Students compete alongside peers from other states and countries, testing not only the quality of their own innovations, but also experiencing the rigors and challenges of global competition,” says Ana Martinez, NYC First’s regional director.

Students worked together in teams to design and build a 130-pound robot in a six-week timeframe using a standard kit of parts and a common set of rules.

Young Engineers at Work
With support from Fortune 500 companies and college scholarships, the not-for-profit organization FIRST hosts the FIRST Robotics Competition and FIRST Tech Challenge for high-school students, FIRST LEGO League for 9 to 14-year-olds, and Junior FIRST LEGO League for 6 to 9-year-olds. FIRST programs are organized by volunteers worldwide, most of whom are professional engineers and scientists who mentor the next generation of innovators.

Jose Nunes, a senior mentor for team #2344 from Saunders Trades and Technical High School, Yonkers, NY, who has been a mentor for several years, says “It’s a great platform to expose young students to technology and engineering and one that has a great impact on kids.” Depending on the team, mentors help with robot design, supervise machine-shop operations, and tutor students on software tools and technical topics. “It helps us get our kids excited about engineering and technology, math and science, and also helps give them perspective,” he adds.

“By studying robotics, kids peel back layers of the world around them and not only see how things work, but how things are invented,” says Meghan Groome, director of K-12 Science and Education Initiatives at the New York Academy of Sciences. “The opportunity to design, build, program a robot and compete is an experience that inspires the kids to work harder, get involved and learn.” 

Brain Meets Mechanical Brawn
This year’s robotics challenge, LOGO MOTION, included two alliances of three teams that competed on a 27-by-54-foot field with poles at each end, attempting to earn points by hanging as many triangle, circle, and square logo pieces as possible. The teams received extra points if their robots assembled logo pieces to form the FIRST logo. The teams also deployed mini-bots to climb vertical poles for a chance to earn additional points.

Team #359 (winning alliance) from Waialua High School, HI.

Building a robotic arm that picks up colorful logo pieces from one end of the pit and and hangs them on poles at the other end of the pit is not an easy task. The preparation requires an extreme level of dedication. The students worked together in teams for six weeks, some even after school hours and on the weekends. “One of the biggest challenges we faced was to design the ‘claw’ and test it through trial and error,” says Rebecca Barone, a 12th grader on team #359 from Waialua High School, HI.

Most students had to problem-solve and refine their skills as engineers to get the correct formula. Barone says her team spent the first few days brainstorming different strategies and mechanisms, sketched ideas for robots on paper and in CAD, and then made several prototypes in parallel to select the best robot design. “All prototypes and final designs were evaluated against the game and any possible practice field elements to see if the robot adequately accomplishes the task,” she adds. The final result was an anodized-red metal frame robot, with motors, air tanks, mini-bot, and a robust mechanical claw that led the team to the final round of the game.

Barone’s team shared the first prize with the Morris High School team from Bronx, NY, and the Plainedge High School team from Massapequa, NY. The Waialua team also bagged the Industrial Safety Award. “Scoring the most points is a secondary goal, however,” says a cheerful Barone. “It’s more about ‘coopertition’ than competition.” The Morris High School team, which is sponsored by the New York Yankees, won the Creativity Award and the Plainedge High School team won the Team Spirit Award.

Building Engineers of Tomorrow
The enthusiasm and passion of the participants and spectators, who cheered their fellow-students during the practice and final rounds, was equivalent to what school athletes have when representing their school at a football or basketball game. “The overall goal of FIRST is to build on that passion a career path toward scientific and technical professions,” says regional director Martinez. “FIRST events celebrate the achievement of our future technologists in the same way school athletes receive the applause of their fans.”

David Umana, an 18-year-old senior at Ridgefield Memorial High School, NJ, was charged for the competition, bouncing about and around his team’s worksite with seemingly endless enthusiasm. “I started as a freshman,” he says. “I came into high school mostly interested in sports, basketball, and soccer. But when I saw the robots, I went ‘wow,’ and just got involved in this.” Sports have been bumped down on Umana’s list of priorities and he has risen to captain of his school’s robotics team. Now, he’s waiting for replies to college applications and plans on studying mechanical engineering.

It’s a great platform to expose young students to technology and engineering and one that has a great impact on kids.

Jose Nunes, Senior Mentor, FIRST

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March 2011

by Chitra Sethi, Managing Editor, ASME.org