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MIT, Local Students Compete in FIRST

Robot Competition Engages Local High Schools, Industry

By Katharyn Jeffreys

Features Editor

On Saturday, the MIT FIRST team displayed to parents and friends the robot they built for the upcoming US FIRST competition. The robot will ship this week after a month and a half of intensive design and construction, in addition to a semester of learning and teaching.

The team is made up of Teradyne Engineers, MIT students, and Chelsea High School and Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School students. The MIT team is prepared to match its performance last year, when it placed second in the region. Dana Jones, a CRLHS junior who has been involved with FIRST since his freshman year said, “We got our acts together last year and got second at regionals which was really good for a team which hadn’t done well the year before.”

The team has also used a different design approach. “Last year we were one of the fastest robots,” said Kailas N. Narendran ’01. “This year we were a little more conservative, but it should perform well.” FIRST teams will compete regionally in New Hampshire and nationally at EPCOT Center in Orlando, Florida.

The team is sponsored both with monetary and advisory support from Teradyne. The cost of the program is high, including materials and travel expenses for all forty participants. In the end the bill can be upwards of fifty thousand dollars. The team credits much of their improvement this year to the increasing involvement of the Teradyne engineers.

The contest, modeled after the 2.007 competition, requires teams to design a robot which can pick up large rubber balls and place them in a trough made of PVC pipes. The robots can not exceed 130 lbs and must be less than 2.5 feet wide, 3 feet long and 5 feet high at the start of each round. Many teams design the robot to expand following the start of the contest. In MIT’s case, a bin attached to eight foot arms can pick up and deposit balls into the trough. Teams get points for placing the different colored balls in the trough, being able to maneuver over a ramp and hang from the trough.

Learning, friendship outshine competition

The process of building the robot began in the fall when the MIT students went to the two high schools to recruit. They then spent the semester meeting to teach the high school students about relevant issues, ranging from physics to group dynamics. Chelsea High School student Yessica Calix said of the MIT students, “When we didn’t understand something, they would explain it to us.”

“It definitely has an impact on the kids,” said Rainuka Gupta G. “We’ve had two graduating seniors go on to start FIRST teams at their respective universities.”

The students involved agree whole-heartedly. CHS student Aladin Milutinovic said, “This is a really great opportunity for me to get involved with college material and see how it is to be a college student.” He added that he saw it as an “opportunity to be accepted to a good college.”

Some students looked beyond school to career plans. “I learned a lot about engineering. The MIT students helped me learn what to expect and not expect,” said CHS student Michael Valentin.

Other students emphasized the importance of the friends they’d made among their peers and the MIT students. Allison Roth, a junior at CRLHS, said, “MIT students make better friends than Rindge students.”

Jones echoed the claim that MIT students were less judgmental about a student’s interest in science. “You can tell people here you are building a robot. You don’t have to be embarrassed.”

Jones also emphasized that the contest is “not just about winning. It’s about having fun and learning about science.”

The students are involved because they can apply what they learn in the classroom they said. CRLHS sophomore Thaddeus Stefanov-Wagner said, “It’s hands-on and you also get to go to Florida, but I probably would have done it anyway.”

Nationally, US FIRST draws approximately 400 teams with sponsors such as NASA, General Motors, Ford, and Motorola. The program also spawned FAIHM, which combines the resources of FIRST, Autodesk, Institute for Women and Technology, Hewlett-Packard and MIT to “inspire women to pursue engineering,” according to Narendran.

E-mail <first-admin@mit.edu> to become involved in next year’s competition.