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MIT, high school students team up at robot championship

It was as much rock concert as science fair. The seventh annual National Robotics Championship, sponsored by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), was held at Disney World in Orlando, FL, on April 2-4, with 12,000 students from high schools all over the country making joyful noise in togas, tiger costumes, and "Men in Black" outfits, while bands periodically broke out in song and marched through the stands.

MIT students, led by Ela Ben-Ur, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, collaborated with students from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School (CRLS) for the Onslaught team, which was sponsored by LEGO, Alex and Brit d'Arbeloff and President Charles M. Vest's office.

"It's been a great experience," said CRLS student Augusto Ustariz Jr. "The brainstorming was great -- everybody really worked together."

"It was great to be there and see the diversity of the kids��������������������������� their enthusiasm is the big reward," said Ms. Ben-Ur.

Begun in 1989 as a nonprofit foundation, FIRST was the brainchild and collaboration of entrepreneur and inventor Dean Kamen and Woodie Flowers, the Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. At the time, Mr. Kamen (also a senior lecturer at MIT) felt he was watching "the decay of American culture, with its false heroes -- celebrities with no content and no context, sports figures who bite off each other's ears and attack their coaches���������������������������"

What to do? He heard about Professor Flowers and his famous Design 2.70 robot contest, called him, and FIRST was born. Professor Flowers calls the FIRST competition "Design 2.70 on steroids." The program's vision statement says, "We see a world where science and technology are celebrated, where kids think science is cool, and dream of becoming science and technology heroes."

Hundreds of students stood and clapped as Mr. Kamen took the stage and thanked and congratulated them all for coming. When he introduced Professor Flowers, who sprung onto the stage as though launched from a catapult, the entire house started whooping and chanting in unison, "Woodie! Woodie! Woodie!"

If this was a rock concert, then Professor Flowers was the rock star. Attired in a vest and baseball cap festooned with the buttons of competing teams from all over the country, he grinned and ducked his head, waving to the crowd and exhorting them to the joyful play and "gracious professionalism" which has characterized the competition.

High school students (and in some cases, middle school students) are teamed with engineers from corporations and universities to design and build a robot in six weeks that will compete against one other in the competition.

Each team gets the same kit of materials and has a weight limit of 130 pounds for the robot. The idea is to build a machine with the size, speed and agility of a human. The goal is to get the most balls in the center "basket" or on racks leading up to it.

FIRST, whose first competition in 1991 fielded 20 teams in a high school gym in New Hampshire, has grown to 200 teams competing in 1998. Its founders aspire to have 2,000 teams by the turn of the century.

Mr. Kamen, an inventor and entrepreneur who holds more than 40 patents, wasn't much older than the high school students when he made his first mark in the world of inventing. His older brother Bart, who was attending Harvard Medical School, came home complaining about the difficulty of getting people medicated where and when they needed it.

Dean, who was in high school at the time, went into the family garage and invented a portable, battery-operated infusion pump to administer dosages over the desired time intervals. When he won a national design engineering award, it was with some surprise that the presenters saw a 19-year-old walk on stage in jeans.

"Last year, 1.3 million technical jobs went unfilled. We could fill 130 arenas like this one, and everyone would have jobs," Mr. Kamen said. "There might be a couple of dozen jobs available in the NBA every year, and 39 million kids in grades K-12 don't have very good odds of getting those."

"It has a chance of really mattering," said Professor Flowers. "We might be able to change millions of kids' attitudes about education. Kids who are involved get a fantastically rich deal. We've got to get the other millions of kids in the country and make this the Super Bowl for science and engineering design."

The MIT/CRLS Onslaught team faced its share of bad luck and tense moments with grace, persistence and a sense of humor. They licked an intermittent power problem and happily took a first place in one match, with on-stage team members Ela Ben-Ur, MIT freshman Kailas Narendran, and Augusto Ustariz Jr., Umung Varma and Cedric Jean-Louis of CRLS jumping up and down and hugging each other while being cheered on by other team members down in front of the stage.

Just then, their machine got cornered by another in an awkward position, and the next thing they knew, one side of the grabber mechanism for picking up the balls had broken off. How could they possibly rebuild the arm in the hour they had before the next round, and without any plywood?

They ended up competing without the arm, employing an offensive strategy of knocking other teams' balls off the racks and relying onAugusto, their "human" player, to score hits for them, doing quite well in the process.

The energy was palpable. The driving beat of the bass in the loud music, and the adrenalin rush of competition kept things at a continuous fever pitch. Dancing to the ever-present music while competing was de riguer -- and all this after many sleepless nights spent designing and building the robots.

Professor Flowers' friendly, hands-on approach endeared him to the young contestants. Students from all over the country hugged and thanked him, asked for his autograph or had their picture taken with him. For his part, Professor Flowers felt "a wonderful, anxious high. I was in the zone. It's a delight to see the stories unfolding. Being creative is like being in love. It's one of the few fundamental sources of satisfaction, creating something. There is a magic about people building things, like a birthing process. It opens people up."

Gary Tooker, chairman of Motorola, last month flew directly from the National Innovation Summit at MIT to a FIRST regional competition near Chicago. At that event, he said, "I just left a very important meeting hosted by Chuck Vest, president of MIT, and sponsored by the Council on Competitiveness in which the entire group agreed that the critical issue for our country is fixing the talent pool. What you people are doing here is exactly what needs to be done all over the country."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 15, 1998.

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