BOSTON—Like dystopian bumper cars, the gangly limbed automatons collide and withdraw as an announcer calls the play-by play with enthusiasm worthy of caged bare-fisted boxing.
It’s an odd thing to see at a technology conference, but this scrimmage among high-school robotics students and their mechanized creations was one of the main attractions at PTC Live Global this week, and it’s a venue where the students can line up mentors, sponsors, and encouragement.
It was a friendly offseason match and an offshoot of the FIRST Robotics Competition, the program founded by inventor Dean Kamen to encourage young people to go into science, technology, engineering, and math.
“For FIRST and for the kids, this is an opportunity to network for sponsors and mentors,” said Bruce Linton, FIRST’s—it stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”—vice president for planning and field operations.
“They’re making a lot of contacts. And that’s been our model: matching kids with mentors. The whole idea is to have them partnered with people from industry so they can see what their career options are. Having 2,500 people from technology-oriented companies in one place saves a lot of shoe leather,” Linton said.
And having high-energy high-school students from around New England circulating through the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center wearing safety glasses and colorful shirts with funny team names (the “Ligerbots”; the “Battery Powered Picklejar Heads”) tends to lighten up a conference about computer-assisted design and product connectivity.
Ellen Tuttle, a ninth-grade member of the all-girl Needham Hackers, said that instead of being asked by other kids about the robots, her team was fielding questions from conference-goers about what it’s like to be part of an all-girl team.
“They think it’s cool,” chimed in her teammate, Sarah McLaughlin, who is also in the ninth grade.
So does Tuttle, who said meeting women who work in technology “is really awesome.”
The students agreed that even though the competition was an unofficial exhibition, there was more pressure to perform in front of engineers and others from technology companies and tech departments of big corporations.
They wouldn’t lose any points, said Finlay Leschner, a freshman on the Picklejar Heads team. “But if we fail, we’ll just go home in humiliation.”
With only minutes to go before the starting buzzer, the Hackers were contending with a bum wheel, while Leschner and her fellow Picklejar Heads were tinkering with a robot that they hadn’t activated since the official robotics season ended in April.
“We just hope it will work,” said Chris Perry, another member of the Picklejar Heads team who just graduated from suburban Lexington High School and is headed to Carnegie Mellon University to study design.
Many FIRST participants like Perry are, in fact, destined to go into technology.
An ongoing five-year study being conducted at Brandeis University has so far found that FIRST participants show gains in skills including understanding the use of science and technology in the real world. They’re also more interested than their peers in science, technology, engineering, and math, more determined to succeed in school, and better at such things as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and teamwork.
The program, which began in 1992 with 28 teams, now has 2,270, with 68,000 high-school members who get six weeks to build their robots from common kits of parts, and who compete in 54 regional events and four qualifying championships leading up to the national finals in the Edwards Jones Dome in St. Louis every April.
There are 30,000 volunteers in the program, and more than 3,500 sponsors, who this year provided $19 million in college scholarships.
The 150-pound robots compete in a high-tech ring against robots from other teams, and get points for throwing, passing, and catching big inflatable balls with their makeshift appendages in a choreography of strategic moves and counter-moves watched over by referees in striped shirts.
As conference-goers looked on, the final round in Boston pitted 10 teams against each other. It ended with some upended robots, random flying parts, and impressively gasp-worthy “baskets.”
The winners: The Duxbury Dragons, Norwell Robotics, and the Ligerbots, who come from Newton.
“Typically the audience at the events we go to are parents, other mentors, and younger siblings,” said Brendan Holley, a mechanical engineer who serves as a mentor with several fellow Northeastern University alumni to a team called the Nutrons.
“This is a different dynamic.”
Photo by Yoshi Murakawa