The EMU Convocation Center is crawling with teenagers. They’re smart teenagers — high school students who design, build, and operate robots. They’ve traveled here, with their robots, from fifty-nine Midwest high schools to battle each other at the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Great Lakes Regional Robot Competition. We’re attending on Saturday, the day of the finals.
In the very center of the arena sits a gigantic contraption that looks like a futuristic jungle gym. A circular scaffold holds twenty-four horizontal arms. The goal of the game is for the robots to place inflatable rings over those arms. The competition is held between the Blue and Red Alliances, each a group of teams from three schools. The kids who designed and built the robots stand with their controlling devices behind a large clear wall on opposite ends of the arena.
About these robots: they aren’t exactly R2D2 but could advance in that direction, given enough time. Most are just variations of the same thing — a box that sits on a platform with four wheels. They all have extendable, flexible, gripping jaws for holding and placing the tubes. Most are made of a clear material, like Plexiglas, so you can see the inner workings, although some are metal. The teenagers tend to the robots with absolute ownership and a bit of reverence.
The announcer guy is wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt, black jeans, and hi-tech orange shoes. After introducing each team — big-time wrestling style — via his cordless headset, he kneels down before each robot and introduces it, too, accompanied by rabid cheers and an occasional chant from its supporters, decked out in school colors.
I see the Pioneer High School team has made it to the finals; that’s good. The members call themselves the Pi Hi Samurai and are decked out in purple karate suits, complete with headbands. Even their robot has purple on its base. They bow to the crazed announcer.
The buzzer sounds and pandemonium ensues. The three robots from each team work quickly but clumsily to get the most rings on the rack. It’s tricky because the scaffolding arms are suspended by chains, offering a wiggly target. Some of the robots try to knock each other around, which is pretty funny but also impressive.
After this round, the kids and I take a walk behind the arena to find one team playing with their robot. A row of kids each have a joystick or some way of controlling and moving part of the robot, and they’re testing how far it can extend its jaws before toppling over. “We’re finished,” an adult tells me, “but we want to work out everything before the next competition.”
This year’s FIRST competition is again at the EMU Convocation Center, on Friday and Saturday, March 28 and 29.
Photo Courtesy Keith McClary.
[Review published March 2008]