Rise of the Machines: NYC Robotics Competition
by Jonathan Zeller, 02/27/2009
A robot warrior is perched on one end of a crater, while its adversary looms menacingly on the other. At its helm, a human hero's sweaty palms grip the controls. She blasts moon rocks at the opposing alliance's automatons and dodges enemy fire—Blam! Blam! Blam! It's an epic struggle, and there can be only one victor.
No, this isn't Michael Bay pitching his next big summer flick, but rather a likely scene at the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics Competition, held March 6–8 at the Javits Center, where bright high school students from New York and around the world bring these special effects to life. Take it from Dennis Giurici, assistant principal at Staten Island Technical High School and adviser to its team, The Robotic Plague. "I remember at one of the competitions," Giurici recalls, "smoke started pouring out of our robot because it burned itself out." Now that's action.
Nuts and Bolts
FIRST has virtues even beyond its near-infinite cool factor. Giurici's students get big benefits from the math, science and engineering expertise needed to build a robot that can—among other things—recognize different colors on its own. Some have even earned college scholarships and high-tech jobs with companies like Google.
Joel Bianchi, coach of Frederick Douglass Academy's Harlem Knights, says his students have achieved similar success: "Robotics awakens them to saying, 'Hey, math and science aren't just some abstract things in a book.'" For example, if the wiring's wrong or the robot topples over or someone just forgot the batteries, they have to fix it. Learning to troubleshoot has helped some team members land Ivy League scholarships to prestigious engineering programs.
Get the Gear
If you want to get your kids going with robot construction (or—be honest—just want to do it yourself), NYC has plenty of places to start. The Science Shop at the New York Hall of Science sells toys like Climb@Tron REX, a window-climbing robot. NYC-based website Robot Village offers robot kits, parts and more for those who want to build their own, and toy mecca FAO Schwarz sells Lego Mindstorms robot kits and Erector sets. Times Square's massive Toys "R" Us features a supercool ROBOTGALAXY, where children can mix and match different parts to create custom robot toys. And for inspiration, check out Brooklyn's LEMUR (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots), a nonprofit organization that makes innovative robotic musical instruments.
For adults, Hammacher Schlemmer offers an array of robot gear whose depth is, frankly, shocking. A 7-foot-tall functional replica of Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot? Check. Two varieties of robotic floor washers? Check, check. On the analog front, the New York Public Library Science, Industry and Business Library is a great resource for anyone interested in learning about robotics.
First Thing's FIRST
Make sure you catch the FIRST competition in person (it's free!). "A picture is worth a thousand words," Giurici says. "As soon as the kids saw the competition, they got on the bus and said, 'When do we start?'" If FIRST can grab teenagers' attention that fast, it's definitely got a blockbuster on its hands—and the results will have transforming effects on NYC kids.
FIRST Robotics Competition Schedule
On March 6, teams will participate in practice rounds from 10am to 5pm, with a lunch break from noon to 1pm.
On March 7, the competition begins. Opening ceremonies are at 9am, followed by seeding matches from 9:30am to 4:30pm, with a lunch break from noon to 1pm. The day closes with an awards ceremony at 4:45pm.
On March 8, the competition continues. Opening ceremonies are at 9am, followed by more seeding matches from 9:30am to noon. Final rounds follow from 1pm to 4:15pm, and the final awards ceremony is at 4:30pm.