More than a decade ago a New Hampshire inventor wondered what would be a good way to get kids interested in science and engineering? What he came up with started small - just a few teams in the gymnasium of Nashua High School - and has since exploded across the country. Last weekend Cleveland was host to the FIRST Buckeye Regional Robotics Competition - part of a national event credited with introducing kids everywhere to the wonders of science and what it can accomplish. Boring, you say? Not on your life. 90.3 WCPN's Bill Rice checked out the action and filed this report.
Bill Rice: It's a little difficult for the uninitiated to grasp exactly what's happening on the floor of Cleveland Sdtate University's Convocation Center. Robots scurry around a playing field, guided by remote control, dropping soccer balls into moveable goals and moving the goals into a scoring position. Bob Hammond, Director of the FIRST competition, explains the essentials.
Bob Hammond: We start at opposite ends, so one alliance of two teams is trying to move them from the far end and the other team's trying to move them in the opposite direction. So we've put together a game where there's a significant tug o' war in the middle of the field, trying to move goals against your opponent.
BR: Part technical exhibition, part sporting event, the competition is all fun and excitement for about 2,000 high schoolers with a penchant for science. Britney Neal points out the features of her team's machine. She's a member of the Scarabian Knights of Cleveland's East Technical High School, one of 57 teams competing.
Britney Neal: These two wheels, they spin and we go up to a ball, and right there, the rubber piece they grab onto the rubber and shoot right into the goal. We have an operator interface, and we have a joystick for the drive system and it goes any direction.
BR: If casual observers don't have all the rules and regulations down, the competitors know exactly what's happening, and it's every team's hope that their robot design will outmaneuver their opponent's.
But it's the overall objective that attracts the attention - and sponsorship - of hundreds of commercial, non-profit and government organizations across the country. They're counting on budding young engineers to take their places as tomorrow's innovators, and they've found a friend in FIRST - an acronym, by the way, meaning "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology". Khadijah Qadeer, a graduate of East Tech, competed in FIRST all through her high school years.
Khadijah Qadeer: First pretty much has made me who I am. It's given me a lot of life skills and taught me how to survive in life. And to have those plethora of opportunities that I didn't know were out there. So First has pretty much taken me to where I am.
BR: Qadeer, now a college sophomore majoring in management Information systems at the University of Dayton, is eager to pass her experience on to others coming after her. She's acting as coach and mentor to the Dayton team, culled from students from several high schools there.
KQ: I tell them they need to do this, make sure they're on task, tell them that to expect, keep them oriented toward being positive, toward knowing what's important, being motivated, gracious professionalisms, things that are very important within First and tell them what it has done for me and be that example.
BR: Perhaps the most sought-after figure is the inventor who founded the competition. Dean Kamen is president and owner of Deka Research in New Hampshire, which specializes in advanced medical equipment. In his jeans and denim shirt, he's everywhere, on foot, or rolling around on his Human Transporter, a kind of upright scooter that he expects will sweep the nation.
Dean Kamen: Kids need to see that science and engineering and technology is every bit as much fun and every bit as accessible as football or basketball, except there's only room at the top professionally for a dozen guys that can bounce a ball. Last year there were a million technical jobs that went unfilled in this country.
BR: The FIRST competition has grown steadily since its inception in 1991. Initially just 28 teams, this year's competition boasts 680 teams competing in 17 regionals. The Buckeye was one of four new regionals just added to the schedule, and organizers say there will be many more held in Cleveland in future years. The national finals will be held later this year at (Walt) Disney World's Epcot Center. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN News.