January 24, 2012 — 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. 28 at the University of Virginia.
The School of Engineering and Applied Science and Northrup Grumman Corporation/Sperry will host the challenge's Shenandoah Valley Regional Qualifier at U.Va.'s Slaughter Recreation Center.
The competition will pit 28 high school and middle school robotics teams from around Virginia against each other for a chance to go 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.
"We are trying to get more young people into the STEM disciplines," said Cahen, who described the event as a form of benevolent outreach that gives students a chance to compete in a non-athletic setting. "They love this stuff."
Students have six weeks to create robots measuring between two and three feet in each direction using a modular robotics platform. According to the FIRST 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 2011-12 game, "Bowled Over!," groups four teams into two alliances to compete in a 12-foot-by-12-foot field. In each 2½-minute match, alliances must move their robots to parking zones, upright crates, move bowling balls and magnetic balls into separate goals at varied elevations, move racquetballs into crates and stack crates into towers. Completion of these tasks awards teams points by which they advance in the tournament.
The constant changing of alliances – your opponent in one match could be your ally in the next – and cooperative nature of the event teaches students to adopt a spirit of "gracious professionalism," Cahen said. "The thing that most impresses me is the young kids having such a good time and working together not only to support their own teams, but to work with other teams. Even if the other teams beat them, they need to understand that need to work together."
Cahen said the organizers estimate the 28 teams of students, mostly from Virginia high schools, plus family spectators and organizers will total about 400 people.
Prolific inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, who spoke at the dedication of U.Va.'s Rice Hall in November, 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 on Jan. 27, and to help with activities like judging and refereeing on Jan. 28. Faculty, staff, students and community members are all welcome, and food and drinks will be provided for helpers.
To register as a volunteer or learn more about the program, click here.