BU and FIRST Robotics Bring Science to Students

April 9, 2012

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All photographs by Ashley Hansberry.

The Boston Regional FIRST Robotics Competition brought high school teams from the New England area and beyond together to compete in a weekend of friendly robot competition. From March 22 – 24, over 50 teams brought their robots to Agganis Arena to participate and show off their robot’s basketball scoring skills. While only a few teams were able to walk away from the competition with awards, the FIRST Robotics Competition proved to be a rewarding experience for all who were involved.

The arena was ready for battle as the hosts welcomed teams to the competition.

FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” is an organization that hopes to help students discover how interesting and rewarding the lives of engineers and scientists can be. FIRST’s goal is to “inspire an appreciation of science and technology in young people.” One of the ways it does this is by hosting several science and technology related competitions each year, including FIRST Lego League, FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition. It seems like FIRST is succeeding at this goal, as students who participate in FIRST are significantly more likely to attend college and twice as likely to major in science and engineering. The organization also gives out more than $15 million dollars in scholarships each year to students in the program to help them continue their pursuit of science in college. The FIRST Robotics Competition 2012 (FRC) involved some 60,000 high-school students, 2,400 teams and 53 regional events and will culminate in April with the Championship in St. Louis, Missouri.

Robots targeted the reflective targets on the baskets to make shot after shot.

This year’s game, called Rebound Rumble, was an amped up version of basketball. Robot teams were grouped into alliances of three which competed together to score as many baskets as they could. There were basketballs scattered around the court and hoops of varying heights with reflective targets to help the robots find them. Teams took a variety of different strategies in trying to help their team score the most points. Some robots played defense and went to the other side of the court to take the balls away from the opponents team. Other robots gathered up several basketballs at once before moving towards the basket for a close shot. Still others used catapult launchers to throw baskets from a distance. At the end of the allotted time, teams got extra points if they could balance their robots on the balance beam bridges in the middle of the court. This way, even the underdog teams could score points at the last minute.

After qualification rounds were over, each of the leading teams were able to chose two ally teams to continue into the final round with them. A qualification round favorite, the team called Miss Daisy from Wissahickon High School in Pennsylvannia chose the Pink Team from Rockledge High School and Cocoa Beach High School in Florida and the BU FIRST team from the Boston University Academy to join them on their path towards victory. After several close calls and a heated final battle, Ms. Daisy, the Pink Team, and the BU FIRST team won the final round and went home with a regional victory. The teams will continue on to compete in the Championship event later this month.

BU FIRST’s Robot, Overclocked, takes to the court with its teammates Miss Daisy and the Pink Team.

FIRST Competitions aren’t all about winning, however. Jeff Stout, 2012 head coach of the BU FIRST team, said that it’s not just “by building and competing” that FIRST hopes to inspire and recognize excellence, “but also by doing outreach to further and advance the mission of science and engineering.” It was this dedication to outreach that helped the BU FIRST team to win the Boston Regional Chairman’s Award, the highest honor given at FIRST events. This is the second year in a row that the team has won the Chairman’s Award, which recognizes teams who embody the spirit of the FIRST competition.

BU FIRST Team is made up of students that attend the BU Academy with a variety of different interests and skill sets. Not all students are just involved in technology, said Stout. Some are more interested in the outreach and work on marketing and preparing the team’s website, for example. Participating in FIRST gives many students the opportunity to learn about engineering. It’s also an opportunity to learn about leadership that students “couldn’t get from doing a science fair project.”

The record for the competition, three robots all balanced on the same beam at once.

Being affiliated with an institution like Boston University is “pretty invaluable” to the BU FIRST Team, says Stout. According to Stout, there are three reasons that the teams “tight relationship” with Boston University is important for the team. First, Boston University is the main source of mentors for the team. Each FIRST team needs mentors to help the students to design and build the robots. Many of the mentors for the BU FIRST team are graduate and undergraduate students from BU’s College of Engineering who help the students plan their robots and use the equipment needed to build them. Boston University is also important to the team because it is their biggest sponsor. BU’s financial support is a big part of what allows the team to participate in FIRST events. Finally, the Technology Innovation Scholars (TIS) within the College of Engineering help the team with outreach. The Technology Innovation Scholars go out to K-12 schools to excite students about engineering. Not only do the the Technology Innovation Scholars help mentor the students, the BU FIRST team also makes their robot available for TIS events at elementary schools in the Boston area.

With their first regional win, another Chairman’s Award and the help of BU, the 2012 season for the BU FIRST team is shaping up to be one of their most successful yet. As the main sponsor of the Boston Regional FIRST Robotics Competition, Boston University is committed to the goal of advancing science and engineering in young people. Even outside the competition, Boston University students continue to mentor and help BU Academy students build their robots to compete in the FIRST Competition.