Science is cool. At least, that’s what the kids are saying these days.
There was proof Friday and Saturday at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s East Campus Athletic Village. High school students filled the bleachers in crazy hats and team colors, waved pom-poms and flags and whooped and hollered when their school was mentioned.
The National Anthem was sung. Teams huddled to go over their game strategy.
All the frenzy and school spirit was for the FIRST Robotics Competition, a program that challenges high school students to design and build a robot.
This year, the challenge was to build one that could score as many goals as possible during a 2.5 minute match against another robot. One robot tried to throw a ball over a bar and into goals, while the opposing robot tried to block or catch the ball.
“It’s definitely cool,” said Kevin Leonard, a senior at Shenendehowa High School, of the competition.
The two-day match at RPI marks the first year that the Capital Region has hosted a regional FIRST competition. It was one of four held across the state and one of 100 held across the country this month. Winners will advance to the FIRST championship competition in St. Louis, Mo., next month.
Shenendehowa was the first local school to participate in the robotics competition when it began 22 years ago. That first team, in 1992, had two students. This year, there were 113 students on the team, doing everything from concept to prototyping to construction to wiring.
Part of the reason for this growth, according to Shen team members, is that robotics competitions are becoming more and more like athletic events.
“It’s still expanding,” said Shen junior Paul Sargunas of the school’s robotics team. “It’s getting more exposure each year, and an atmosphere like this draws people in. It shows that science doesn’t have to be just sitting around doing something boring.”
Leonard and Sargunas explained that a few other teams nicknamed the Shen robot “Lotus” because it was built with a catching device that resembles the flower. Teams earn 10 extra points during a match if their robot can catch one of the balls thrown by the other robot.
“Our device opens up, kind of like a flower and then it curls back up,” said Sargunas. “There are some other robots here that have these catchers, but they aren’t as effective. Then there are some teams that don’t have catchers, but they have a really nice shot.”
On Friday and Saturday, 38 Capital Region teams and teams from across the rest of the state, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., Indiana and even Canada and Turkey converged on the RPI campus with 3,000 pounds worth of robots and gear. On Saturday morning, U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson and GE Global Research Director Mark Little delivered speeches designed to rouse the crowd of more than 1,000 high school students for the day’s matches.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming here today but I’m blown away by your energy and enthusiasm,” Little said.
GE mentors four Capital Region teams for the FIRST Robotics Competition, which now draws teams from 17 countries around the world. Globally, GE mentors about 60 teams.
“We had a couple of the teams come to our research center and show off their robots to us,” Little said. “They got to explain in some detail what they were doing, and the intelligence and depth of knowledge and excitement about it is unbelievable. When I was growing up, we had nothing like this. It’s just really wonderful to see the kids rally around this.”
The diversity of robots and team strategies impressed Jeff Goldmeer, a gas turbine manager at GE Power & Water in Schenectady and one of the judges Saturday.
“There’s a robot on the field right now, 1126, that has the ability to throw the ball the entire length of the field,” he said. “You have robots that can pick up the ball. There’s a robot that has a spike that can block the balls. They only had six weeks to design and build these robots, and they’ve come up with incredible creativity and incredible quality. You’ve got machines that look like they’re works of art. The care that the students have put into building these things is incredible.”
FIRST was founded in 1989 to inspire an appreciation of science and technology in young people. Today, the nonprofit hosts several robotics competitions for students all the way from kindergarten on up to high school.
FIRST Robotics Competition sponsors and volunteers come from organizations and businesses across the region and country. They include NASA, which is the regional lead sponsor, as well as General Electric, National Grid, RPI, Time Warner Cable, Integrated Liner Technology, Global Foundries, Hilton Garden Inn and Recovery Sports Grill.