While most were focused on the big New England Patriots game, the students who participated in Saturday’s For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) competition proved that they, too, were the weekend’s real winners.
“I would say the majority of these kids do not participate in sports,” joked Warwick Veterans Memorial High School robotics team coach Larry West. “They’ve put a lot of time and effort into this, and this contest gives kids another way to compete rather than through sports.”
Hundreds of students and spectators filled the New England Institute of Technology’s Center for Automotive Technology (NEIT) building with Super Bowl sized enthusiasm. They’d come for a competition featuring deflate-proof wiffle and ping-pong balls, and tech savvy young adults who’d journeyed for months to engage in futuristic robot skirmishes.
“We’ve put over 150 hours into this, definitely,” said lead programmer Kevin Sanita of the Veterans team, which goes by the name Cane Bots. “It’s intense.”
The daylong event was a flurry of activity that made Star Trek’s faster than light warp drive technology seem slow and outdated by comparison. Thirty-three teams, comprised of 250 middle and high school students from throughout the state, met to showcase robots that they’d designed, built and programmed.
“Today our hope is that the students participating enjoy the competition while at the same time use math and engineering principals to win,” said Steve Kitchin, NEIT’s Vice President for Corporate Education and Training.
The competition gives teens programming and prototype development experience and problem solving and team building skills while constructing robots to competition specifications. Winning teams go on to compete at regional and national competitions for college scholarships. Dozens of robots filled the center, partaking in a series of contests with serious sets of rules and guidelines.
“We understand that ensuring that young people have opportunities like this, and begin to think of careers in science and engineering, are critical to the future of our state,” said Congressman David Cicilline at the event. “In addition to being great fun, watching [students] do this gives us a lot of hope in the future of our state and country.”
Warwick’s contingent of students was well represented by both public and private schools, with Vets, Rocky Hill School and Bishop Hendricken participating.
“This is a culmination of their four months of efforts in trying to put this robot together to accomplish these tasks,” said Hendricken coach Rick Notardonato, whose team went through three robot designs this season. Their robot’s name is Robo Hawk. “This is an opportunity for them to do hands on learning that they don’t really have an opportunity to do in any of their classes, it’s really big for them,” he said.
The contest pits teams against one another as their robots completed automated- and team-guided tasks. The competition was closely monitored by referees and judges to ensure fairness and quality.
“I’m an engineer, and I think this is so important for kids. I absolutely love it,” said Helen Greathouse, who served as head judge for the eighth year. “There’s a gracious professionalism that’s such a big part of this event. We like to see teams helping each other. One team gave another a new battery; they loan each other tools. There’s almost an alliance between teams that may have never worked together before.”
The contest saw tremendous excitement early on with Warwick Vets team stunning the crowd by performing exceptionally well during an early round. Their high score came in the “Cascade Effect” event, where robots collect and strategically place wiffle and ping-pong balls.
“We’ve had one competition so far and we’re on our way to our second,” said Sanita after the round. “The first one, the autonomous part didn’t go exactly as planned, but it was very close. We got good points, we got 384 points in that round!”
“Did you see what Vets did during that round? That may be a national scoring record, that was an incredible performance,” said Hendricken coach Notardonato.
While the competition saw the Aquidneck Island, Burrillville and Mt. Hope teams advance to the Eastern Super Regional Tournament in Scranton, Pa. in March, the Warwick Vets team’s success in the competition was recognized when they received the competition’s Think Award.
According to competition rules, the judged Think Award is given to the team that best reflects the “journey” the team took as they experienced the engineering design process during the season. The team’s engineering notebook, a log kept throughout the year, is the reference used by judges in determining the award.
“This competition is a cross curricular format. There’s English used, the kids have to maintain a notebook for this, and math and programming go hand and hand,” said coach West. “I’m just really proud of the kids for getting together and working so well.”
Regardless of the final outcome, it was clear that all the students involved were winners for achieving so much from their positive experiences.
“I’d like to thank everyone involved in this, it’s been amazing,” said programmer Sanita. “Whether or not we win, it’s still amazing what we did, and it’s amazing what all these people here did.”