TOPICS > Science

Students Compete in Robotics

May 16, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT
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TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: It was the opening round of the semi-finals at the Colorado Regional FIRST Robotics Competition, a rough-and-tumble game where robots score points by firing rubber balls through a hoop.

COMPETITION PARTICIPANT: We’ve disabled it. It’s disabled.

TOM BEARDEN: Suddenly, one robot stopped moving.

COMPETITION PARTICIPANT: Do we have another key or anything else?

TOM BEARDEN: The members of Team 159, Alpine Robotics from Poudre High School in Fort Collins, scrambled to fix their broken robot.

COMPETITION PARTICIPANT: The belt. It’s the belt. It’s the belt on the inside.

TOM BEARDEN: Officials warned the team that they had just a few minutes to make repairs or be replaced by another team.

COMPETITION OFFICIAL: You’re not going to make it?

COMPETITION PARTICIPANT: No.

COMPETITION OFFICIAL: Sorry, guys.

Developing a passion for science

TOM BEARDEN: They couldn't do it and were forced to leave the field. Team captain Nick Hobbs showed one of his coaches the problem.

NICK HOBBS, High School Junior: This fell out, so we can't drive.

TOM BEARDEN: The $1,000 robot had been stopped cold when a key that cost about a nickel fell into the drive train. It was heartbreaking, but dealing with breakdowns like this is exactly what FIRST is all about.

FIRST, an acronym meaning "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," was the brainchild of Dean Kamen, an inventor best known for developing the Segway scooter and the iBOT wheelchair.

DEAN KAMEN, Founder, FIRST: The skills these kids learn when they participate in FIRST give them career opportunities. Do you want to be an electric engineer, physicist? Do you want to do proteomics, or genomics, or nanotechnology? What exciting career do you want to go into? We're helping you make that option possible.

TOM BEARDEN: Kamen says helping kids develop a passion for math, science and engineering is vital to the country's future.

DEAN KAMEN: In this country, we have kids who think what they want to excel at is football or basketball, what they want to do with their time is the entertainment industry, and I think the balance is so distorted that it literally leaves our country at the risk of losing its position in leadership, in technology.

And, as a consequence of that, we will lose our position of leadership in quality of life, standard of living, security, health care, and all of the other things that Americans somehow take for granted. And we've got to change kids' attitudes fast.

Seeing problems as opportunities

TOM BEARDEN: It was back in January when this year's competition began with a kickoff rally in New Hampshire that was beamed by satellite to auditoriums all over the country. For the nearly 30,000 high school students who participate, this is their first glimpse of what game they will have to design their robots to play.

ANNOUNCER: This year's game is played on a 26-by-54-foot field.

TOM BEARDEN: This year, it was a complicated mix of shooting a ball through a high goal for three points, into low goals for one point, and climbing up a ramp at end of the two-and-a-half minute game to score bonus points. Just minutes after the kickoff rally ended, Team 159 huddled to plot their strategy.

NICK HOBBS: So here's what I want to start doing now, is I want to start defining characteristics of our robot that we want to utilize. I think the camera...

One of the great things about this competition is that they give you a problem, and it's really vague, and it's very real world. And we end up working through it just like a staff of engineers at H.P. would, but we're in high school, which is a really great opportunity.

A.J. SALIMBENI, High School Senior: Do we have three of them?

PARENT: Yes.

A.J. SALIMBENI: Is that what we're supposed to have? OK.

TOM BEARDEN: Each of the 1,100 high school teams that compete in the competition received a kit containing many of the parts that must be used to build the robot.

A.J. SALIMBENI: And one of the things that the kit does is it keeps everything level, because otherwise you'd have people going out and buying the heavy-duty motors with the most efficient electrical output out there, and their robot would obviously have more pushing power because of it, but not everyone can afford it.

The game begins!

TOM BEARDEN: Even with the kits, competing isn't cheap. Entry fees for each level of competition costs about $5,000. Additional parts for the robot not in the kit can cost $1,000 more.

The students are required to raise the money themselves by finding corporate sponsors and through fundraisers. Team 159 was lucky to have a well-equipped machine shop in their school so they could make most of the parts themselves. Many schools have to pay to have that done.

ANDRES TEENE, Engineer: What I suggest is that, you know, you come up with the design and prototype it as soon as you can.

TOM BEARDEN: Each team has adult mentors, teachers, parents and professional engineers who spend hundreds of hours guiding the students as they build the robots. Andres Teene is an engineer with LSI Logic, a high-tech firm based in Fort Collins.

ANDRES TEEN: Our goal, you know, from a team perspective is always to have the kids drive the design process, because that's the way they're going to learn. A few of the kids, they have pretty strong minds and some opinions, or probably will have some concerns on some of the things that they implement, but that's -- you know, they have to go through that process.

TOM BEARDEN: After the initial kickoff, each team has just six weeks to design, build, program and test their robot. Most teams also build a mock-up of the playing field so they can practice playing the game. It means a lot of late nights, a lot of delivery pizza, a lot of stress...

STUDENT: Sean, quiet!

TOM BEARDEN: ... and sometimes very short tempers.

STUDENT: I'm trying focus on this and get it done. Everybody is distracting everything with stupid questions like that.

TOM BEARDEN: The team had a lot of trouble getting their shooting mechanism to throw the rubber balls the 30 feet necessary to score high goals.

AARON ROGERS, High School Senior: We kind of have a lot of weight on our shoulders, is letting the team down if it doesn't all work, because a lot of the mechanisms are my design, so I should have made sure they all worked ahead of time and that kind of a thing.

TOM BEARDEN: And there were some basic machine shop problems. Hobbs described a particular low point as they were drilling holes into the robot's base plate.

NICK HOBBS: On one side, our holes weren't the right dimensions and we couldn't figure out why. And then we realized that the table had been tilted. By this time, it was like 4:30 in the morning, and we realized that everything we had done that night was pretty much for naught because this table was off by .02 inch.

TOM BEARDEN: In February, with only one week to go before the deadline, the programmers still had no robot to work with.

MARIA POTTERVELD, High School Sophomore: It's definitely getting a little bit stressful, especially since I'm learning how to program and the programming comes into effect once you have a robot. So, like, all of the stuff we've written so far can't be tested until we have the actual robot.

COMPETITION ANNOUNCER: Let's hear it for Team 159!

TOM BEARDEN: Somehow, Team 159 met the six-week deadline and on April 1st were in battle at the Colorado regional competition.

COMPETITION ANNOUNCER: Twenty seconds left. Looks like Alpine Robotics playing some good defense there, trying to get in the way of that blue goal.

TOM BEARDEN: The competitions are deliberately designed to have the feel of a sports match, complete with play-by-play announcers and cheering fans. The whole idea is to make science appealing to young people.

DEAN KAMEN: Science, and engineering, and inventing, and creating is a gas. It's tremendously exhilarating; it's lots of fun.

TOM BEARDEN: The games require a lot of teamwork. Each match has three robot teams competing against three other teams. Team 159's robot was performing fairly well until that five-cent part failed. The kids were obviously disappointed, but not for long.

COMPETITION ANNOUNCER: The 2006 Colorado regional chairman's award winner is Team 159, Alpine Robotics!

Each team has a story

TOM BEARDEN: In the end, their team won the most prestigious regional prize of all, the chairman's award, given to the team that has done the most to encourage other students to pursue science and technology. Team 159 had done that by helping other schools start robotics programs of their own. It meant they could go to the national competition a month later in Atlanta.

STUDENT: Welcome to the Georgia Dome.

TOM BEARDEN: The nationals bring 340 teams from all over the world together for two raucous, strenuous days of head-to-head competition. Each team has its own unique story to tell.

STUDENT: Does it have batteries?

TOM BEARDEN: Team 812 came from the Price School in San Diego. It's a charter school made up of inner-city minority students whose parents never attended college. The team won the chairman's award from the Southern California for helping tutor kids who otherwise might never get one-on-one attention in math and science.

Rob Mainieri is the team's coach.

ROB MAINIERI, Mentor, Team 812: These kids every year do somewhere around 1,500 to 2,000 hours of community outreach, whether it's tutoring at the Boys and Girls Clubs, or last year we had some students work at a home for battered women and their children, and just working on getting technology understood by other people.

TOM BEARDEN: He says the program has literally changed the lives of his kids, kids like Vu Hong, who has a scholarship to MIT next year.

VU HONG, High School Senior: It's shown me that I could have a lot of potential in college, and I would have never aimed as high as MIT before, but now potentially anything can happen.

TOM BEARDEN: Angelina Saldivar got a scholarship to Amherst College.

ANGELINA SALDIVAR, High School Senior: I really didn't think that I could do anything like this, engineering. I'm a Hispanic female. And doing engineering or even going to college was something that was completely out of the question for me. And really being through the program, it taught me to believe in being able to achieve anything.

TOM BEARDEN: Team 812 had very little money. Instead of staying in a hotel in Atlanta as most teams did, they crashed on the floor of a friend of their coach. But that didn't dampen their fun or their success.

(APPLAUSE)

Team 812 finished an impressive 18th out of 88 teams in their division, and Mainieri was named the top mentor in the country.

Team 159 also had quite a bit of success. Their robot performed well and, again, they made the semi-finals...

COMPETITION PARTICIPANT: All right, we're good. We're on.

TOM BEARDEN: ... until another different part failed in the heat of battle.

COMPETITION PARTICIPANT: One of our drive belts is dead. Get everything ready to change it out. Go, go, go.

TOM BEARDEN: They were hoping their partners would call a time out so they could fix it and continue playing.

COMPETITION OFFICIAL: We got to go right now. Don't tell me yes if you're not going to move. Are you going to move? You sure?

TOM BEARDEN: Ultimately, 159's two partners decided to get a replacement team.

COMPETITION OFFICIAL: I'm very sorry. We wanted you guys on the field, but we had to go to with the backup.

TOM BEARDEN: 159 was out...

NICK HOBBS: Well, guys, thanks for the frantic effort.

TOM BEARDEN: ... but Hobbs says he finished the season very proud of what they'd all accomplished.

NICK HOBBS: I think that's one of the reasons that robotics is different than sports. Like, at the end of a soccer game, if you lose, you never feel good. Like, it's never like, "Wow, I learned something useful today." It's always like, "Man, we lost."

But, like, at the end of the season, like, you think about it, and you look at the robot, and you realize that we spent over, like, 40 hours a week, each of us, working on it. And so the amount of time we spent competing, like, opposed to the amount of time we spent building is minuscule.

COMPETITION ANNOUNCER: Unbelievable!

TOM BEARDEN: There's one other way that FIRST is different from sports and it was on display in the final game of the 2006 competition.

COMPETITION ANNOUNCER: This 296 machine, its shooter was inoperable because they had lost a master link on a chain on the 296 machine. No one on this alliance had a master link to get that shooter working again. It was this alliance that had the master link, gave it to them, to get this working right here.

(APPLAUSE)

Three, two, one, go!

TOM BEARDEN: The final match proceeded.

COMPETITION ANNOUNCER: This is anybody's match!

TOM BEARDEN: And the team that got the help ended up beating the team that assisted them.

COMPETITION ANNOUNCER: We have a winner!

TOM BEARDEN: It was the perfect example of what Dean Kamen wants the competition to be. At first, it's not about who wins; it's how you play the game.