Robots take the field in name of science
High school competitors build their own mechanical players

By Robert Weisman, Globe Staff  March 24, 2006

Young robot operators listen intently to instructions before practice rounds yesterday at the FIRST Robot Competition, where teams of high schoolers will compete starting today at Boston University's Agganis Arena.
Teams send their robots out for practice yesterday prior to today's opening of the regional FIRST Robotics Competition.
James Carney of Team Nerd Herd grinds down extruding nails on the Westwood High School robot.
Ismail Maye and Thanh Luu make some repairs.

The geek olympics have come to town.

And if America faces a shortage of engineers and inventors, you'd never guess it from the hundreds of tech-crazed high school students gathered in Boston University's Agganis Arena yesterday to ready their robots for the FIRST Robotics Competition opening today.

Forty-four high school teams, outfitted in safety goggles and brightly colored T-shirts, were huddled in ''pits," drilling holes, tightening bolts, and putting the finishing touches on the 5-foot-high robots they'd designed and built. Some looked like shopping carts with circuit boards, others like elongated jukeboxes or giant gumball machines on wheels.

High-tech luminaries like Steve Wozniak, the pony-tailed Apple Computer cofounder and a judge at this weekend's contest, moved through the pits, chatting with the next generation of innovators.

''Do we have a Dremel tool?" George Perna, a mentor from Textron Systems in Wilmington, shouted at orange-clad members of the Burning Tigers team from Brighton High School who were scrambling to replace a motor in their drive mechanism with one that spun faster.

''I'm looking for a puncher," said Ismail Maye, a Brighton High sophomore seeking to adjust a part used in a ball-lifting assembly.

The event, which is expected to draw thousands of spectators, is sponsored by FIRST (For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit organization started in 1989 by Dean Kamen, the New Hampshire-based inventor of the Segway scooter. It's designed to get high school students jazzed about math and science, and dozens of corporations sponsor teams, ponying up $6,000 per school for kits, parts, tools, and registration fees.

Many companies also dispatch mentors to work with the teams and recruit future interns.

''Businesses recognize that we really need a change in American culture," said Brookline technology entrepreneur Marc A. Hodosh, chairman of the Boston FIRST event. ''This country celebrates athletes and entertainers. The average high school kid around Boston could probably name the entire Red Sox team, but they couldn't name a single living inventor. A career in science and technology is much more accessible and realistic than a career in sports."

In all-day matches open free to the public today and tomorrow, groups of six teams will scrimmage on an area roughly the size of a tennis court in three-on-three games that are a cross between soccer and basketball. Preprogrammed robots moving autonomously or controlled remotely with joysticks will race to propel Nerf balls through rectangular holes in glass partitions at either end of the ''field," or pop them through round holes higher up the walls. Some robots shoot, some defend, and some scoop up balls.

The teams with the most points in the regional competition will go on to compete in the national FIRST tournament in Atlanta next month. The regional competition, the first held in Boston, has drawn teams from New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, Florida, and even Brazil, including 14 teams that have never built robots before.

Diagonally across the pit aisle from the Burning Tigers yesterday, pink-shirted members of Team Queen from Milton's Fontbonne Academy, the only all-girls team in the regional competition, were fastening to their robot's frame a nylon bag that will serve as a funnel for Nerf balls. Fontbonne's robot was christened Killer Queen.

''You need some garlands or balloons up around here," joked one of their mentors, Northeastern University student Erin Rapacki, who was tooling around the cavernous arena on a Segway scooter.

''We're going to have it all decked out tomorrow," Ruthann Gallagher, a junior at Fontbonne, promised her.

Cynthia Andre, a Fontbonne sophomore, was wandering around the arena scouting the competition and hunting for alliances for the matches. Noting that Team Queen's robot specializes in gathering up balls and blocking out other robots, Andre assured her teammates they would be in demand by other teams whose robots focused more on shooting and scoring. ''Being a feeder robot is very helpful for a lot of teams," she said hopefully. ''And playing defense is an important trait."

This year's competition, named Aim High, kicked off Jan. 7, when teams were given their robotics kits and assignments. They had six weeks to design, assemble, and program their robots.

For last-minute adjustments or modifications, yesterday was the day. And in a hallway behind the pits, volunteers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration set up a machine shop to help.

Brighton High, a rookie team that worked past midnight on many nights through January and February, realized at 4 a.m. on the deadline day of Feb. 24 that its drive mechanism for lifting balls wasn't working as it should. Yesterday tool-wielding team members were back at work on their 120-pound octagonal robot, Tigger, replacing its chains with more flexible polycords on the troublesome drive assembly.

''I've always believed that being good at math and science can change people's lives," said Elly May O'Toole, a Brighton High physics teacher and faculty adviser to the robotics team. ''If these kids are good at something that can be objectively judged, that's something they'll have their whole lives. No one can take that away from them."

Robert Weisman can be reached at

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