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Students put robots through their paces

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Who says it’s impossible to get kids excited about science?

Anyone who attended Saturday’s FIRST Tech Challenge robotics competition at Locust Grove Middle School would certainly argue that point.

Teams from 22 Virginia middle and high schools, all in their first year of FTC competition, showed up for this rookie qualifier tournament to match their robotic creations with and against other teams in competition to solve a robotic engineering problem. They competed as randomly chosen two-team alliances throughout the day, with the match-ups changing for each round, and then formed three-team alliances for the finals.

This year’s “Ring It Up” challenge involved placing doughnut-shaped rings onto pegs on a rack within a 12-by-12-foot diamond-shaped playing field. The receiving racks were set up in a 3-by-3 grid, much like a tic-tac-toe game. Higher level pegs scored more points than lower levels, and extra points were given for scoring tic-tac-toe lines of three occupied pegs.

For the first 30 seconds of play, robots were required to act autonomously, without input from their teams. During the autonomous scoring period, a team that could place a ring on a column holding a randomly-placed infrared beacon would score significant bonus points. For the remaining two minutes of each match, team drivers could control the robots by remote control, placing pegs on the racks for maximum scoring.

In a final twist, during the final 30 seconds of play, a team that could lift its alliance partner robot off the floor would also score bonus points—from a minimum of one inch of lift to a maximum of 24 inches, with increasing points for higher lifts.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a not-for-profit volunteer-driven organization founded some 20 years ago by inventor Dean Kamen, president of DEKA Research & Development Corp.

Describing the group’s mission, Kamen said, “We want to change the culture by celebrating the mind. We need to show kids that it’s more fun to design and create a video game than to play one.”

FIRST volunteers form and run four layers of competitive programs, starting with 6-year-olds, and running up through post-high-school age groups. The Junior FIRST LEGO League is for 6 to 9 year olds. FIRST LEGO League includes 9 to 14 year old contestants. FIRST Tech Challenge is aimed at students in grades 7 through 12, while the FIRST Robotics Competition is a higher level of challenge for grades 9 through 12.

Welcoming the visiting teams to Orange County, District 5 Supervisor Lee Frame recalled his years in U.S. Navy nuclear submarines, dealing with engineering, science and math problems.

“Frankly,” he said, “I enjoyed every bit of it, and I’m hoping that all of you who are doing this can think of a career that is as much fun as you’re having today.”

At the start of the FTC competition, the young contestants were reminded of the FIRST program’s core value of gracious professionalism, described as “fierce competition coupled with unqualified kindness and respect.” Throughout the day-long tournament, young competitors provided easily seen evidence that they had been listening, and understood and practiced the credo.

They also showed an abundance of characteristically youthful exuberance and excitement, dancing “Gangnam Style” between rounds of play.

After 33 rounds of qualifying matches and four semi-final elimination bouts, two three-team alliances faced each other for the top spot in the tournament. The Red alliance, made up of the Saints from Alexandria’s St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School; Defying Gravity, sponsored by the Albemarle Ruritan Club; and the Geek Gods from West Albemarle High School squared off against the Blue alliance of I Lite It Up, the US STEM team from Haymarket; the Huskies of Flint Hill School in Oakton; and Big Blue Botics from Harrisonburg.

Three closely contested matches ended with the Red alliance on top.

Orange County School Board member Sherrie Page, after watching the teams in action, said, “I just love that, besides the science, this is teaching these kids teamwork, and how to work together. It’s just wonderful!”

Seven teams advanced to the Virginia Regional Championship Tournament: Flint Hill School, St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes, Haymarket, Harrisonburg, Locust Grove Middle School in Orange and two teams from Rocky Run Middle School in Fairfax. That tournament will be held March 2 at the Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center in Richmond.

Dan McFarland: