Elementary and high school students get regular exposure to math and science, but they rarely get to experience engineering. Fortunately, that's starting to change. More and more students—some as young as six years old—now build their own robots and square off against other budding young designers in regional and even international competitions.
It all started 15 years ago with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen that hosts and promotes these competitions. Since then, the program has grown to include more than 1300 international teams and about 32,500 high school students. Many of these students will take part in this year's FIRST Robotics Competition, April 12-14 in Atlanta's Georgia Dome (Fig. 1).
"They get to see up close and personal what engineers are like as people, and what they do," says Eileen Sweeney, director of the Motorola Foundation, which supports FIRST and other programs that promote an interest in technology among young people.
It seems to be working. At least 40 Motorola engineers participated in the FIRST robotics program as high school students, and several were members of teams sponsored by Motorola. Several of these engineers now coach high school robotics teams themselves.
Mike Sokoup, a software engineer at Motorola, joined one of the Motorola-sponsored robotics teams as a student at Rolling Meadows High School. "To me, it was like joining the debating team. I liked math and science, and a teacher told me about the robotics team, so I joined."
His interest in technology continued to grow. He graduated in 1996 and went on to the University of Illinois, where he majored in computer engineering. Now, he advises a Chicago area robotics team. "What these kids are doing today is beyond what they're learning in high school," he says.
A WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR
Industry participation is a critical element in FIRST. Arizona's regional section, for example, has more than 20 sponsors that include Microchip Technology, Intel, Microsoft, NXP Semiconductor, STMicroelectronics, White Electronics, and the ITT Technical Institute.
"Microchip was the microcontroller of choice for Dean Kamen, and that's how our relationship got started," says Carol Popovich, director of Microchip's University Program and co-chair of FIRST Robotics Arizona. "We decided to sponsor a team."
Each team must build and test a robot using a kit developed by Innovation First, which supplies robotic products for the consumer and education markets. The kit includes more than 500 parts from the company's Vex Robotics Design System, which also offers more than 20 accessory products, including an autonomous programming kit, distance sensors, line-following sensors, and tank treads. The company acquired the Vex Robotics Design System brand name from Radio Shack in April 2006.
Each six-member high school-level team gets the same kit of parts and has six weeks to build its robot. Participation isn't cheap, though. The entry fee for one regional competition is $6000 per team, most of which is donated by supporting companies.
The competitions have been a major success for promoting careers in science and technology among high school students. A survey by Brandeis University found that more than three times as many FIRST students are likely to go on to major in engineering as non-FIRST students with similar backgrounds and academic experience. Significantly more are expected to attain a post-graduate degree. Women and minority FIRST alumni also major in engineering at comparatively higher rates.
A FIRST committee designs a new game every year, which is rolled out the second week of January. The games become more complicated every year. Cameras that can sense and track colors were introduced a few years ago. By 2006, just about everyone had cameras in their robots. Autonomous robots are also relatively new to the competition. And, robots are being equipped with more sensors than in the past.
"There are more parts \[per kit\] now," says Sokoup, "but there's still a limit on what each team can spend on its robot. It's up to the technical advisors to teach the kids how to use these tools. A lot of these kids have never dealt with software, so we teach them how to write software."
LET THE GAMES BEGIN
This year's FIRST Robotics Competition, "Rack 'N Roll," will be played on a field that measures 54 feet by about 27 feet with a rack in the center that's 10 feet high and has 24 "spider legs" (Fig. 2). Robots must fit into a 29- by 38-in. rectangle without their bumpers. They can be up to six feet tall and weigh up to 120 lb (not counting the battery), but taller robots must weigh less than shorter robots.
Two three-team alliances will use different types of inflatable tubes called "keepers," "ringers," and "spoilers." During the 15-second Autonomous period, the robots run without driver control and try to place a keeper tube on one of the rack's spider legs. They will use a color vision tracking system to find one of the four target lights on the top of the rack. Once placed, a keeper tube may not be removed or spoiled.
During the second period, which lasts two minutes, drivers control the robots and attempt to score more points by adding ringers to the spider legs. Or, they can "spoil" the opposing teams by placing black tubes over their ringers. Points are earned and scored exponentially by the number of consecutive ringers and keepers in a column or row. Alliances may score additional points if, by the end of the match, their robots are in their home zone and another robot lifts them off the floor by 4 inches or more before the final buzzer sounds.