Think of them as budding Transformer builders. These guys and girls don't need to play basketball themselves when they can build robots that practically do it for them.
Hundreds of high school students gathered at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City on April 5 and 6 for the 16th annual FIRST Robotics Competition, an intense battle for technically attuned teens.
Short for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, the FIRST competition brought together roughly 65 high school teams from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania (even a handful from the United Kingdom) to display what they — and their robots — are made of.
"We're doing pretty well this time, we're feeling a lot better from our last regional," said Bret Minnbhan, a 17-year old junior at Bishop Brady High School in Concord, N.H. "I am nervous about whether or not we'll get into the final top eight.
"This is important to me since it is the first time I'm building robots. At first, I didn't tell my friends that I was going to be building robots, but eventually they found out, and when they did, they thought it was cool. But there are some people who think I'm such a nerd for doing robotics."
The gathering is the next stage of the competition, which began in January, and culminates this weekend with trophies in a variety of categories, recognizing the hard work and effort the students have put into building their robots.
"I'm not nervous because we're going to win. We're better than all the other robots. We're very fast, we can pick up the ball, we can cap the ball, we can shoot the ball, and a lot of the other robots can shoot the ball but not cap the ball," said Theodora Kunicki, 18, a senior at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, N.Y.
The intense competition began earlier this year, when teams of young people received a special FIRST kit, with a common set of rules, to build the robot that would bring them to New York. Weight and size restrictions assured that all participants had the same materials to create their robots.
"So, essentially, the game constitutes the problem," said FIRST regional director Randy Schaeffer. "We get teams of kids and their mentors who have to come up with solutions. And this is the same process that an engineer in the industry goes through every day.
"They have to master their design concept with the solution and also the resources available to execute. And this is the kind of experience the kids are getting, and employers need workers with those kinds of skills."
With kits in hand, the teens were on their own to tap their ingenuity, creativity and problem-solving skills to create their perfect robots.
"I'm concerned about our robot's arm; it broke on us when we were at the Connecticut regional. We spent the whole regional fixing it, and in this regional it broke once again, so we added two extra bearings to help stabilize the arm so it, hopefully, doesn't happen again," said 16-year-old Jason Lewis from George Westinghouse High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. "We need to win these matches."
And the competitive spirit didn't wane as the teams battled their way to the best designed robot, while learning that early-stage teamwork and commitment can lead to the building blocks of future careers, perhaps in science and technology.
"I wasn't always into this stuff, I used to be really into football. But then I realized I wasn't big enough to play that sport, so I decided to get my head in the books, and when I found out my high school had a robotics team, I decided to join," Lewis said.
The contest has been fierce. Individual pits were erected for each high school to continue to test their robots before the moment of truth arrived with the judges. Students busied themselves at repair tables, replacing parts as needed, as other team members hit "the track" with the robots for a speed challenge, which included carrying "trackballs."
The robots' speed and agility with the trackballs, as well as other rules of the game, determined the number of points scored during the competition.
The competition played out like a high stakes basketball game, only it was centered on a track more the size of a tennis court. "This game is like a basketball game with robots for players," said Schaeffer.
The competition has inspired several high school students to take their education to a new level. Aside from learning more about an area of work they feel passionate about, while having fun, these students are excited about new opportunities.
"I'm a little nervous today, but more excited than anything. I personally want to be an electrical engineer, so this is kind of my passion," said Desiree Philips, a 17-year-old senior from Bronx Science High School. "Being here is not tiring, it is more [about] me having fun."
Many colleges were at the competition, and offered scholarships for FIRST member participants. And large companies, such as IBM, Goldman Sachs, and Johnson & Johnson were there, taking preliminary peeks at future employees, as well as setting up mock interviews.
"Kids are finally starting to get the message that science and technology is important, and you can see FIRST kids doing stuff all over the country," said Schaeffer.
"I think we really started to introduce science to the youth in a fun way. And these kids now have a great way to develop their skills, make contacts and do things that will affect them for the rest of their lives."