Mind Games

April, 2007

This month, upwards of 30,000 high school students and their supporters will gather in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. They will clap and howl like frenzied fans spurring on their favorite pro athlete. But this is no NBA game.

The event is the finals for the FIRST Robotics Competition, an intellectual challenge where high school students from around the world build complex robots that compete against each other.

Hawaii has four high school teams with potential to make the trip. Not to mention, next year, for the first time, Hawaii will be a site for a FIRST Robotics regional competition. And we are told there is nothing like seeing it live. In the meantime, here is our breakdown of what this robot mania is all about.

* The FIRST Robotics Competition was started in 1992 in response to a shortage of student engineering careers. More than 1,300 teams from six countries will participate this year. Each team gets six week to build a robot from a standard set of parts.

* This year, students needed to build a robot that could place circular inflatable tubes onto posts extending out from an 18-foot rack (see picture). Plus, the robots compete against other teams, so any feature that prevents another team from placing a tube helps.

* Hawaii’s four high school teams are from McKinley, Waialua, Punahou, and Waiakea. The cost and expertise needed prohibits most high schools from participating. Entrance is $6,000, plus thousands in parts and ten of thousands in travel costs. Then schools need to partner with industry engineers to mentor the students in building the complex robots.

* Gov. Linda Lingle traveled to the kick-off of the FIRST Robotics Competition and came back with a commitment for a Hawaii competition and a $1 million pledge from NASA to support our teams. FIRST also runs less costly programs for all ages of students, like FIRST Lego League.

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Scott Radway