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New York City
April 2002

Robotics Competition Inspires HS Students
By Bruce Myint

On the second day of the FIRST Robotics NY Competition, inventor Dean Kamen, rolls by a sea of high schoolers, riding his Segway Human Transporter. The crowd, eager for an autograph, lurches forward to steal a peek at his famous invention. Gliding around effortlessly, Kamen signs his name on tie-dye shirts while students hand him gifts of inflatable hammers and candy. The Rolling Stones thunders over the loudspeakers. A jumbotron flashes highlights from the competition, as the crowd—a mix of cheerleaders, mascots, fans, and parents—bursts in applause.

The atmosphere is electrifying—far more reminiscent of a pep rally than a science competition.

The FIRST Robotics Competition (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), is yet another of Kamen’s wildly successful inventions. It has been energizing students for the last 11 years by inspiring them to pursue careers in the fields of science and technology.

Recently, more than 1,000 teens and spectators gathered in Columbia University’s Dodge Fitness Center to watch teams from 21 New York City high schools, six surrounding states, and the UK compete in the three-day event. Teams fought to secure a place in the championship event hosted by Walt Disney World’s EPCOT at the end of April.

This was the second year the regional competition, sponsored by The Goldman Sachs Foundation, was held in New York City.

Each year, FIRST gives high school students six weeks to design and build a 130 lb. problem-solving robot; a remote-controlled combination of motors, pistons, and gearboxes assembled from a kit provided by the organizers. In order to keep design teams on their toes, robots must be able to complete complicated tasks that change each year.

In this year’s competition, students designed robots to race around a playing field and collect soccer balls. Teams then needed to place the balls into goals and drag the goals back to scoring zones—all in under two minutes.

Building robots for FIRST is not just an assembly job; it is a very sophisticated engineering challenge. Long before building, teams must seek help from mentoring teachers, scientists, and engineers. They must also secure sponsors–a key step in a competition that can cost up to $5,000 per event, not including the cost of travel and accommodations.

In addition, teams must adjust to an environment that is both competitive and collaborative.

For example, Long Island’s Smithtown High School team won the All Star Rookie Award for dividing their team according to financial, marketing, graphic arts, and mechanical tasks. Their use of creative writing, art, math, science, and technology characterized the interdisciplinary learning encouraged by the event.

For FIRST, robotics provides a foothold for transforming the way schools think about studying science.

One of FIRST’s goals in New York, for example, was to change the way schools treated science and technology. “I have seen schools really go through incredible change in terms of their culture: student perception of themselves, teacher perceptions of what they can achieve. And that is something that our schools badly need,” said Lucia Martinez, co-director of NYC FIRST. “We need something that tells them ‘You are great. You can do it just like the x

schools do it on these teams.’”

A number of participants expressed that can-do attitude by praising the value of experiencing science hands-on. Jackie Tan, of the Art and Design High School, remarked, “Instead of sitting there reading newspaper articles and books on science we’re actually experiencing it. We’re actually doing it and putting our hands on it. It’s completely amazing.”

“It was great to get an idea in our heads and actually build it and watch it work. We’re really proud to watch what we created work. It was a great feeling,” said Rookie Greg Lovine, of West Xavierian in Brooklyn, standing next to the team’s robot “The Clipper”.

Changing student attitudes toward science and technology is an important task in light of a recent study that ranked U.S. high school students behind their Canadian and European counterparts when it came to proficiency in both academic areas.

But while the competition has helped to rejuvenate science education, some of FIRST’s greatest benefits have been experienced by the participants themselves— teens that make up the more than 650 teams nationwide representing nearly every state.

“If you talk to these kids you’ll know that they’re not building robots. They’re building self esteem; they’re building relationships with real professionals. They’re seeing that the world of science and technology and engineering is fun,” explained Kamen. “It’s for women. It’s for minorities. It’s for anybody willing to put passion and effort into it. Now every one of these kids believes that thinking and designing and inventing and building is fun.”

And making education fun can amount to big changes.

Watching his team make repairs to their ‘bot’ after a particularly rough battle against another high school team, Patrick Dzioba of Watertown High School described his experience with FIRST: “Personally, it changed me immensely. Before this, I thought my life’s ambition was to grow up and become a tattoo artist. Now I’m thinking about computer science actually.”#


Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001. Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919. Email: ednews1@aol.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2001.