The Herald Bulletin

Afternoon Update

Local Education

January 7, 2012

Students kick off robotics season

ANDERSON, Ind. — Last spring, Annie Gates traveled to St. Louis to watch and cheer on her older brother at the FIRST Robotics Competition.

“It was really fun,” she said. “I went around to all the competitor booths and they gave out buttons.”

Dressed in silver sparkling Toms shoes and skinny jeans, Gates, 14, wants to be an astronomer and design robots for future Mars expeditions.

She was joined by a small handful of girls at Anderson High School late Saturday morning as the announcement was made for FIRST’s annual competition.

“I think girls mainly think technology is for nerds,” she said. “But I don’t think so.”

The high schoolers, both male and female, from Madison County will have six weeks to build a robot for  regional competition. The goal is to make it to the finals in St. Louis.

Last year, the Madison County team won the Boilmaker Regional, securing a spot at the finals. The regionals for this group are in Cincinnati and Knoxville.

“There is a new game every year, but there are some elements of consistency,” said professional mentor Judge Morton. “A portion of the competition is automated at every round with no human interaction. The robot must do a series of tasks that involves programming. Then there is a game, but it’s fairly complex.”

The competition this year is called “Rebound Rumble.”

Robots must make baskets or balance on teetering bridges in order to score points. In each round, an alliance of three robots from different teams must work together. Additional points are given for working with the opposing team.

Morton, who works at Amacor, joins the team for the second year in a row as one of the professional mentors. He got involved through word of mouth.

“My son (Abram) is a big tech geek,” Morton said. “He’s really into it.”

For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, an inventor, entrepreneur and advocate of science and technology.

Organizers say the FIRST Robotic Competition started in 2000 as a way to transform culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated.

Kamen’s goal is to have technology become as much a part of popular culture as football.

“Until they’re making fun of you on late-night TV, you’re not a part of pop culture,” Kamen said during the competition kickoff broadcast, which aired to teams.

Student teams from around the world build and program robots with help from professional mentors in order to compete in a robot game.

“It fosters a great amount of teamwork and cooperation,” Morton said. “Ninety-three percent of team members have gone on to some college.”

Many of the college-bound students that participated on a robotics teams also earned scholarships.

Competition isn’t cheap, though.

“It costs $5,000 (for a team) to enter your first competition and $4,000 for any after that,” Morton said. “We’ll be going to Knoxville in March and Cincinnati in April.”

Teams receive a starter kit with random parts from various sponsors to help get started. This year’s kit includes an Xbox 360 Kinect from Microsoft.

“It takes a lot of grant writing and sponsors to make this work,” Morton said. “But it really teaches kids to think outside the box.”

Dan Newby, owner of DRN Machine, has helped the team for the last 13 years. Students do a majority of the fabrication and building at his machine shop under his guidance.

“We want them to imagine,” Newby said. “At school they are not asked to use their imagination. At home they’re not asked to use their imagination. We want to hear them think.”

Contact April Abernathy: 640-4861, april.abernathy@heraldbulletin.com

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