NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — More than 1,000 high school students from around the world converged on the Jacob Javits Convention Center this past weekend for the FIRST Robotics Competition – an event billed by organizers as a “varsity sport of the mind.”
This year’s competition featured a game called Ultimate Ascent, a version of Frisbee played by teams of colorful mechanized carts hurling plastic saucers at goals on a field.
During Saturday’s games at the Javits Center, youths raised their voices in gleeful screams of support.
“We were great at defense,” said Harold Gonzalez, 16, of John Dewey High School in Gravesend, Brooklyn. “Our robot was strong, sturdy — and we made it.”
The aspiring airplane pilot was his team’s “driver.” He used a computerized board with a joystick to remotely direct the square contraption and its “arm.”
More than 60 student teams had six weeks to design and build the robots using a kit of parts with set rules. But the challenges go beyond mechanical engineering and computer programming. Each team also had to find a sponsor who helped cover the $5,000 participation fee for returning contestants; rookies paid $6,500. In addition, they had to present a business plan.
“You don’t win by yourself, you win together,” said Kemi Oluwanifise, a co-chair of the New York FIRST, meaning For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.
With the advice of coaches and mentors, each group operates “like a little corporation,” she said.
The three winning teams Saturday were from Stuyvesant High School in Lower Manhattan, the William Cullen Bryant High School in Astoria, Queens, and the Connetquot Central School District team in Bohemia, Long Island. The competition’s highest award, the Chairman’s Award, was given to the Harlem Knights from Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem.
It’s hardly the first FIRST. The competition was founded in 1989 by entrepreneur Dean Kamen with the help of a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The first event was at a New Hampshire high school. A different robot-driven game is chosen each year.
The three-day regional event, scheduled to end Saturday, brought young participants from around the United States, Turkey, Great Britain, Brazil and Canada. Teams advance to the finals in late April in St. Louis, Mo.
Will Marshall, 17, of Cambridge, England, said his group faced an added difficulty. They had to ship their robot across the Atlantic _ minus the sealed lead acid batteries he said were not allowed on a flight.
Other participants lent them the batteries in New York.
“This is a community thing,” said Marshall.
Filippo Dispenza, 37, who teaches earth science and robotics at Dewey and acts as a mentor, says the competition has a bigger aim.
“It makes a student understand why they’re taking science classes, math, engineering, technology,” he said. “It really makes them focus and say, `Wow, I think I understand what I want to do in my future.”’
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