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US First Competition Resembles MIT's 2.70

By Karen E. Robinson

Over a semester of work is drawing to a close for a team of roughly 40 students from MIT and Cambridge Ringe and Latin High School as they complete a robot for the US First Robotics Competition.

The competition, which resembles MIT's 2.70 design competition, is for teams of high school students sponsored and aided by professional and university engineers. "The goal of the competition itself is to teach high school students principles of engineering and design, and work with them to build a robot in a community," said Rainuka Gupta '99, engineering team leader.

The Robotics Competitions are sponsored by US First, which stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," a non-profit organization founded by Dean Kaman to "generate an interest in science and engineering among today's youth," according to the organization's statement.

The competition started in 1992 with involvement from Professor of Mechanical Engineering Woodie C. Flowers PhD '73. This is MIT's fourth year to enter a team in the competition, said Ela Ben-Ur G who headed the team last year.

At the beginning of last semester Gupta, Andrew Curtis G, and other MIT students started working with the high school students, teaching them engineering principles in weekly classes over the duration of the semester. "We started with This is a force, this is torque' and ended with okay, design a robot,'" Gupta said.

Work on the robot for competition began in early January when this year's rules and playing field were unveiled by national First officials at the competition's kickoff. Teams get two bins of supplies and components from contest officials, and are allowed to buy other items within contest restrictions. There are then six weeks to brainstorm, design, and build the robot. "Those six weeks are a very intensive time the kids get a very accelerated view of the job of an engineer," Gupta said.

A mix of students attend First

"We recruit at the school just by postering," Gupta explained. Some students who came to classes "are very excited about engineering and robotics; some are just curious. They're good kids for me that's the neatest thing, getting these kids who don't really know what they're opening themselves up to. It's a mix of kids and it's a lot of fun. The kids feed off of each others' enthusiasm and off our enthusiasm."

Project nears completion

Work has been intense since Independent Activities Period began, but "this is the crunch time," Ben-Ur said. The completed robot must be shipped to the regional site next Monday. Fifteen high school students and roughly 25 MIT students will go to the regional competition in New Jersey this March, then to the national competition at Walt Disney World in April.

This contest is one of the biggest events Walt Disney World hosts each year, with 13,000 people expected in April. The competition field will be part of the innovations platform at Epcot Center in the spring and will be broadcast on ESPN, said administrative team leader Kailas N. Narendran '01. A year-round booth explaining the contest is currently under construction.

Most of students' time at both competitions will be spent on fine tuning, repairs, and practicing with the robot, said Frank Bentley '02, who is involved with the MIT team and also competed on a team as a high school student in Illinois. During competition rounds, three high school students operate the robot and two MIT students act as coaches. Other students are in the team's pit to mend and improve the robot between rounds. "You'll have to fix the robot, it's just a given," Bentley said.

After the competition is over most sites host activities for students, including Walt Disney World. "After the park shuts down, they keep attractions open for First students," Bentley said. "We get to ride all the rides It's really lots of fun."

Companies sponsor robot teams

Most high school teams are sponsored by corporations and professional engineers only about 10 to 15 percent have university sponsors, Gupta said. Engineers from Production Genesis were involved as well. In addition, companies such as Intelligent Automation Systems, Solid Works, and Math Works also contributed, and the Institute provided support.