Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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Competition Will Bring Young Minds, Robots to U.Va.

Do you like robots, the movie “Real Steel” or just having fun? You might enjoy the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, Robotics Competition, to be held Jan. 12 at the University of Virginia.

U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and Northrop Grumman Corporation/Sperry will host the challenge’s Shenandoah Valley Regional Qualifier at U.Va.’s Slaughter Recreation Center.

The competition will pit about 28 high school and middle school robotics teams from around Virginia against one another for a chance to advance to the state-level competition in March.

George Cahen, a materials science and engineering professor and director for experiential programs and engineering outreach at the Engineering School, said the school values this event because it serves as a pipeline to attract fresh minds to the University in fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“There is increased interest in STEM disciplines in students and this event helps us reach out to them,” said Cahen, who described the event as a form of fun-filled outreach that gives students a chance to compete in a non-athletic setting. “They have a great time with this stuff and learn something in the process.”

Students have been working for about 17 to 18 weeks to create robots measuring 18 inches-by-18 inches using a modular robotics platform. According to the FIRST Tech Challenge website, student teams design, build and program their robots to compete in an alliance format against other teams. Utilizing a kit of common parts used to build the core system for the robots, students, coaches, mentors and volunteers must develop strategy and build robots based on sound engineering principles.

The 2012-13 game, “Ring It Up!,” is played on a 12-foot-by-12-foot, diamond-shaped field. Two alliances comprising two teams each compete in matches consisting of a 30-second autonomous period, followed by a two-minute driver-controlled period. The object of the game is to score more points than your opponent’s alliance by placing plastic rings onto pegs on the center rack. Teams will also be challenged to detect special “weighted” rings to earn a multiplier bonus.

Cahen said the organizers estimate that about 400 people will attend the event, including family spectators, organizers and teams.

Prolific inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, who spoke at the dedication of U.Va.’s Rice Hall in 2011, founded FIRST in 1989 with the aim to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology, according to the program’s website.

The event is free and open to the public. Doors open for teams at 7 a.m. Opening ceremonies begin at 10:30 a.m.

Organizers are looking for volunteers to help set up the space starting at 11 a.m. on Jan. 11, and to help with activities like judging and refereeing on Jan. 12. Faculty, staff, students and community members are all welcome, and food and drinks will be provided for helpers.

To volunteer to help, click here.

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