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Robotics Take over St. Louis in FIRST Championships

Saint Louis rocked during the last week of April when 12,000 students from 38 countries showed up to compete in the world championship for the FIRST robotic competitions. The three-day event came to a roaring conclusion as 20,000 people cheered on two high school alliances as they battled for first place via their proxies, moving machines that threw balls over a truss, caught balls and put as many balls as possible through goals. The winning alliance was made up of four teams from San Jose, CA; Bloomfield Hills, MI; Dallas, TX; and Holland, MI.

The robotics work "has been one of the most influential things I have ever done, said Jane Jacobs, a member of team 469, Las Guerillas, in Bloomfield Hills. "I spend countless hours there and it's my favorite thing in the world. This program has changed my life forever."

Added Kyle Wolf, an alliance member from Dallas' Jesuit Dallas team 2848, the All Sparks, "It has been a life-changing experience the last four years... It's just amazing."

Awards dominate the event, honoring future innovators, "Dean's List" recipients, team spirit, creativity, quality, gracious professionalism and innovation in control, among many other forms of recognition. Many of those honors come with some of the $25 million in scholarships made available through the competitions.

FIRST Robotics Competition kicks off each year at a local level. This year more than 68,000 students on 2,727 teams participated in 98 regional and district competitions. That included younger students who participated in their own levels of robotics contests.

FIRST Tech Challenge, for example, draws students from grades 7-12. The object of this year's game, named FTC Block Party, called for participants to build robots that could place plastic blocks into pendulum buckets. The contest also called on teams to program their machines to raise flags up a flagpole, raise the robots off the ground with a platform pull-up bar and balance the pendulum by the end of the match for extra points.

The winning alliance for the final phase in that competition included teams from Portland, OR; Delray Beach, FL; and Accident, MD.

The FIRST Lego League is for students ages nine to 14 who build Lego Mindstorms robots. The work for these robots focused on storms, earthquakes, waves and other natural disasters in this year's contest, Nature's Fury. At this level, the robots are expected to complete pre-designed missions in 150 seconds; the students must also create a "clever presentation" about their solution to perform in front of judges.

The non-profit FIRST organization was launched in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen to encourage young people to have an interest in science and technology. "FIRST is the way through sports to let kids see how exciting and rewarding and accessible the world of engineering and technology really are," said Kamen, who remains involved in the event. "It’s a passion for science, technology and innovation that have allowed these industries to prosper. Take what you have learned here and solve the world's problems."

Added Woodie Flowers, emeritus professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and an advisor to the event, FIRST is not just about STEM topics, it's about "STEM-enhanced — with teamwork and cooperation and grit — the stuff that's really important to make it in life."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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