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Teens Compete in International Robotics Competition

  • Suzanne Presto

High school students around the world have designed and built robots for a competition hosted by "FIRST," an organization formally known as "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology."

The FIRST Robotics Competition Washington DC Regional, a qualifying event for the world championship in late April, had all the energy of a professional sporting event. Bleachers at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center were packed with cheering fans, many of whom wore the colors of their favorite teams. Mascots danced courtside, energizing the crowd. Team members in matching shirts high-fived after strong plays.

But the teenage competitors were not on the playing field themselves. Instead, they were battling robots they built themselves in an event that celebrates students' brains and robotic brawn.

In match after match, rotating teams of six frisbee-flinging, point-scoring, opponent-blocking, tower-climbing robots competed on an 8 by 16 meter court to win the game 'Ultimate Ascent.' Their aim was to land as many discs in their goals as possible during the roughly two-minute matches. Robots operated independently for a brief period before students took over the controls.

International Competition and Cooperation

More than 50,000 students around the world are participating in this year's competition, with teams in Australia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Chile, China, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, Singapore, Taiwan and Turkey, as well as the United States. More than 1,000 high school students, representing schools in the eastern U.S. and overseas, gathered at the meet in Washington.

"To have the opportunity to come here to the U.S.A. and compete is amazing," said Guilherme Lima, a member of the team "Brazilian Machine."

Shaked Keidar of the "Thunderbolts" team from Israel said there is competition but also cooperation. His team has a strong bond with a U.S. team that visited Israel last year.

"We hosted them, so this year we met up with them right here in the pit next to us," he said, referring to the area where teams tweak their robots between matches. "They're helping us, and we really love them."

The Thunderbolts' mentor, Eli Barak, says the competition is about more than building robots.

"Everybody thinks it's about robots. As a matter of fact, we build people here," he said. "The whole idea of setting up priorities, deciding what to do, what to give up - this is really the learning experience for the kids."

Building and Battling Robots

On the court, three teams form an alliance - red or blue - and those alliances shift during qualifying matches. Alliance-mates become opponents, a switch that promotes good sportsmanship.

It takes long days and hard work to make it to the competition. Event organizers sent each team the same kit of components, and students had just six weeks to design, program and build their robots.

The Woodrow Wilson High School team in Washington, called "Tiger Pride," won last year's regional competition and worked hard this year to defend its title.

Student Sohrab Pasikhani is a returning member of the robotics team. He says the program gives students the opportunity to think outside of the box and to gain hands-on experience.

"Before this, I barely knew what a screw was, didn't even know what a nut or a bolt was," he said. Now Pasikhani helps design and build the robot.

Mentor Jeff Wetzel of DC Robotics says the students use math, science and creativity to succeed.

"Having the kids have smiles on their faces when they leave, and be puzzled and confused and overcome that, and to see them work through a problem and come to a solution, that makes me happy," he said.

Student Larissa Simon, who got involved with the Tiger Pride team this school year, says the competition fuels excitement about science and technology.

"I really like learning about mechanics and robotics, and I think it's important that girls especially get involved in engineering," she said.

DC Regional Results

Wilson High's Tiger Pride did not reclaim victory this year, but the team took it in stride as they packed up their robot.

"We just take it back to the school and then we wait for an off-season event," said Pasikhani.

Members of the team Brazilian Machine cheered euphorically when they earned a spot in the world championship by placing in the event's top three, along with Team Krunch from Florida and The RoboCats from Ohio.
Israel's Thunderbolts had already secured a spot in the world finals, which are set for late April in the midwestern United States.