Five minutes into John Sperry’s high school robotics class, I realize I’m out of my depth intellectually — and they haven’t even started talking mechanics or physics yet. Juliette Heyman, a 17-year-old junior, is standing in front of the class, writing down strategies for winning this year’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition as classmates lob ideas at her. “How about blocking lanes?” one student offers. Juliette writes it down. “Can you descore?” asks another. Scribble, scribble. Shove a robot against a wall? Impede its visibility? How about two runner robots clearing the way for a scoring robot? What about strategic alliances? Soon, they’re talking deliverables and deadlines. On Monday, there will be a quiz on the 70-plus-page contest rules.
It’s a Sunday at Anderson High School in Austin, Texas, and the room is packed with teenagers, ages 14 to 18, who are surprisingly wide awake and engaged. It’s day two of Anderson High’s six-week crunch to get a robot built for the 20th season of robot madness ending with the FIRST Championship, to be held in St. Louis from April 27 to 30.
“Every spring, I live robotics,” says Caroline Moy, part of the team’s leadership (along with Nate McLauchlin), whose dad has been known to beg her to leave school at 10 p.m., after a 15-hour day. In January, the Anderson team and about 50,000 other robot maniacs tuned in to hear Segway inventor Dean Kamen and Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas announce this year’s challenge: a robotic game called Logo Motion, involving six teams competing on a 27-foot-by-54-foot field. Each team’s robot must earn points by hanging pieces shaped like a triangle, a circle or a square on a rack. (Bonus points if the robot’s minibots can climb a 9-foot tower in the last 10 seconds.) “It’s not just about building a robot. It’s ‘How can we design the robot correctly so it can accomplish the task?’ ” explains Matt Carroll, 16.
The robotics competition is only part of the FIRST Championship, the NBA Finals of science and technology for students competing for awards, trophies and medallions. High schoolers are eligible to apply for scholarships totaling more than $14 million. Corporate mentors from Microsoft to NASA are on hand to help the nearly 2,000 teams (50,000-plus contestants) win the show. And it is a show, make no mistake. There are amped-up teens, cheerleaders, bands, DJs and awards. It’s how Kamen envisioned FIRST back in 1989, when he realized the United States was falling behind in science and engineering. He deliberately picked the sports model, setting up double-elimination tournaments, bringing in the hoopla of sports to show that science and technology don’t have to be boring. Last year, 10,000 students from 30 countries and 10,000 volunteers took over Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
Kamen made millions on medical devices and the Segway. Eager to give back, he created the SEE (Science Enrichment Encounters) Science Center, a “little science museum” next to his business, DEKA Research & Development, in Manchester, N.H. One Saturday, he says, he walked into a mob of shrieking kids and parents and asked a student to name a famous scientist, engineer or inventor. “He looked at me with a blank stare. So I asked the next kid, the next kid … and I realized that all these kids are in this science center wearing Celtics T-shirts and Bruins T-shirts and Patriots sweatshirts,” he says. Then he asked the parents. Finally, one said, “Well, Einstein, but I think he’s dead.”
“All of a sudden, it hit me like a ton of bricks. In a free country, in a free culture, you get what you celebrate,” he says. Kids see sports and music figures making it big, so that’s whom they emulate — even if their chances of breaking through are minimal.
At Anderson High today, however, 35 teenagers are getting into Kamen’s dream with the help of mentor David Yanoshak, an engineer at Texas Instruments, and adviser Sperry. Matt Carroll and Trent Pokorny, both 16, are unloading boxes of robot parts with 14-year-old Casey Aldridge. They have just six weeks to build a robot for regionals in hopes of making the FIRST national competition. “This is what we call our kitbot,” Matt explains. “They give us a basic robotics platform to start out with, so there are different iterations of the kitbot we can make.”
“ ‘Iterations,’ huh? You sure you’re 16?” I ask Matt.
“I picked it up around here. If the robot doesn’t work, you iterate it,” he says, nonchalantly.
FIRST has paid off for Anderson. Of the 30 seniors on past robot teams, more than 76 percent are studying science, technology, engineering or math in college. A new class of freshmen is eager to follow. “We put in a 14-hour day yesterday. Our turnout is great, more than 30 kids. On a Sunday,” Sperry says.