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Students from MIT and Cambridge high school team up in robot contest

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Students from MIT and Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) have teamed up to design and build a robot for the FIRST Competition, a national engineering contest that culminates in April at Disney World.

FIRST -- For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology -- is a national robotics and engineering competition that teams high school students with engineers from companies and universities in an intense six-week design competition involving more than 150 teams from around the country. FIRST sponsors include NASA, Motorola, AT&T, Honeywell and LEGO. Teams will compete in national trials at Epcot Center in Florida on April 2-4. The FIRST nationals will be televised on ESPN.

The team's 1997 robot and their work-in-progress will be on display at an open house at the high school this evening from 6-8pm (Rm R107), just four weeks in advance of FIRST's regional competition in New Hampshire on March 12-14.

Roy Carter, a science and technology teacher at the Rindge School of Technical Arts (RSTA) at CRLS, was instrumental in getting FIRST off the ground.

"This is a very important national engineering contest -- it provides an opportunity for students to see design-and-build processes similar to what we have in our pre-engineering courses at RSTA/CRLS, but at a more sophisticated level," he said. "It's very gratifying to have the MIT students work with ours, and we have found the MIT students to be very helpful and gracious in sharing their expertise."

The faculty advisor for MIT students on the FIRST team is David Wallace, the Esther and Harold Edgerton Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering. Other mechanical engineering faculty members involved with the robot's design are Professor Emeritus David Gordon Wilson and Assistant Professor Sanjay E. Sarma.

Vivek Nadkarni, a graduate student in electrical engineering, spoke of the rewards of his involvement in FIRST.

"I'm learning a great deal about managing teams through FIRST," he said. "An amazing fact that just struck me while working with high school students is that the students are capable of getting a great deal more done if you spend an extra five or 10 minutes explaining how they should go about breaking up the task that you have assigned them, instead of telling them just the final objective and leaving it to them to break it up into bite-sized pieces."

Added Elizabeth Tyree, an RSTA/CRLS student, "I understood the gist of the competition after going to regionals last year, but it didn't really hit me what it's all about until I went to the national competition: it's all about engineering and teamwork. Even though it's competitive, people are willing to share their ideas and materials and whatever they have."


Planning for the 1998 competition started last April, after the 1997 competition at Epcot. Students from MIT taught a class at CRLS during the fall semester, introducing the high school students to basic engineering concepts and prepping them for the intense weeks of design and implementation ahead. The MIT/CRLS team came in 71st out of 141 entrants in 1997, and the new FIRST team, called "Onslaught," is determined to work together to win.

"We're paying attention to detail -- following all the processes of good design, and getting each team member involved owning some part of the effort," said Ela Ben-Ur, a graduate student in mechanical engineering,

"I'm also impressed with the fact that there are two design teams working this year -- one on engineering design and one on marketing/media -- and I see this as a model that more progresssive engineering schools are taking. It's reflective of the real world practices, where an engineering person and marketing staff work as teams," added Mr. Carter.

The FIRST competition resembles the mother of all robot-building contests, MIT's famed Design 2.70. As in the 2.70 contest, FIRST robots must conform to specific dimensions (2.5 by 3 by 4 feet) and they must act in particular ways, such as moving about, lifting balls, dropping balls onto raised rails and performing defensive tasks.

When competing, three robots are placed in a hexagonal arena which contains several "goals." The object of the game is to place rubber balls 20 inches in diameter on horizontal rail structures while knocking off balls belonging to other teams. A second objective is to get balls into a small central circle surrounded by railing. The points are determined by the number of balls in the goals at the end of the session.

Teams throughout the country receive identical construction kits at the beginning of January; they have six weeks to design and build their competing robots. The kits are purchased from FIRST, and they include items such as various types of motors, a complete pneumatic system with on-board compressor, and raw materials including aluminum, polycarb and plywood.

But the main significance of the FIRST contest is the collaboration between high school and college students, as the general goal of the contest itself is to interest younger students in science and engineering.

"I enjoy teaching the students and find it really rewarding when they stop taking directions and start showing initiative and designing parts of the robot by themselves," said Will Lentz, a graduate student in electrical engineering.

"I think I've gotten out of the competition the knowledge of the controls of the robot, and how to perform functions that I didn't think were easily done," said RSTA/CRLS student Joel Payne. "I'm excited about this project because we're going to design this robot and we'll be able to see in the competition how well our planning paid off."

Corporate and university sponsors can use FIRST as a medium to create closer ties with the neighborhood, and generate goodwill in the region. Engineering companies also get a chance to promote themselves at the national competition, where hundreds of other engineers are present.

"We here at LEGO commend the FIRST organization because it is an initiative that encourages kids to study science and it actively involves them in technology," said LEGO public relations officer Catherine Lee. "We think it's a tremendous project and we believe strongly in it. We feel it's critical to spark kids' interest in science and technology and we feel that FIRST is a strong vehicle to achieve that goal."

MIT Corporation Chairman Alexander d'Arbeloff and his wife Brit also contributed $10,000 to the MIT-RSTA team.

Still, while the MIT-RSTA Onslaught team works feverishly on designing and engineering their robot, they must face the same challenges any entrepreneurial group faces -- they must generate both interest in and support for their work.

Ela Ben-Ur summarized the MIT-RSTA FIRST team wish list, noting, "Engineers are welcome to come and be anything from occasional advisors to full team members to mentors. We're inviting the parents to be involved in fundraising or in supporting their children's involvement. And in the long run, we're looking for a company to form a long-term partnership with the MIT/CRLS team and get involved with the engineering and/or educational aspects of the program."

For more information and directions to the open house, see the MIT-CRLS Onslaught Team's web site.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 11, 1998.

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