Some of Washington’s best and brightest high school students are coming together this weekend for a competition. Although they refer to it as a “sport”, there are no cleats, no helmets, and no special equipment. School mascots dance with the students around the floor at CenturyLink Field Events Center. The music, loud and pumping, is keeping spirits high. These kids, decked out in their school colors, with face paint, funky hats and t-shirts, are cheering for their robots. Yes, very cool, basketball-playing “Rebound Rumbling” homebuilt robots.
It’s the Washington FIRST Robotics Regional Competition of about 100 Washington high school teams on two playing fields at CenturyLink. FIRST USA (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), was founded in 1989 by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen. “Twenty years ago,” says Kamen, in Seattle for the competition, “I realized there was going to be a global competition, in which the smart win. The smart companies, the smart countries, the smart governments.” Kamen wanted to get kids excited about science and technology, but make it fun. “We have to get kids to realize that science and technology can be as much fun as sports and entertainment,” he says.
Washington state entered the FIRST Robotics Competition 20 years ago. And Boeing was one of the first industry leaders to give both money and mentorship to Washington’s high school students to help them build a robot that could perform a function and compete with other robots. Today, there are 629 schools in Washington state with robotics clubs who participate in FIRST’s competitions. And with corporate sponsors like Boeing, Microsoft, F5 Networks and JC Penney, the companies feel they are not only investing in robotics clubs, but in their future employees.
The schools get their “kits” in January each school year, and are told what their robot needs to be able to do in competition. The basic kit, which this year included Xbox 360 Kinect Controllers from Microsoft, costs $5,000. Some school districts cannot afford that fee, says Auburn High School teacher Jan Erie, whose students raised the money through grants and fundraising. The students, teachers and industry mentors have six weeks to design, build and program their robot. This year’s robots have to shoot basketballs from the free throw line of a standard sized basketball court, and hit three baskets at varying heights. The highest basket is at the regulation 10 feet.
After putting on a pair of safety goggles, I was escorted by Zack Szechenyi, a senior at Marysville Arts and Technology High School, and the lead designer for his school’s robot. It’s his school’s fifth year to have a robotics club, and he has participated each year. Last year, the Marysville Arts and Technology High School competed well enough in the Washington FIRST Regionals to go on to the Finals in St. Louis, Missouri. Zack says that’s what they are hoping for again this year. “It’s taught me how to get out of my box, work better with others,” says Zack. “One thing they really stress here is professionalism. We cheer for our own team, but we cheer for other teams, too. If another team needs a nut and bolt, or a hand, even during the competition, we help them out. And I really like that.”
The competition will take place on Saturday, March 24 from 9:00am – 5:00pm at CenturyLink Field Event Center in Seattle. Admission is free, and the competition will be ongoing and fierce. The robots that do well at these regionals will go on to the finals at the end of April in St. Louis. The robots will be packed and shipped, and the teams will follow. With six robots taking shots at baskets at the same time, there’s always something to look at, and a team to cheer for.
For more information about FIRST Washington Robotics, go to http://www.firstwa.org.
CenturyLink Field Event Center is located at:
800 Occidental Avenue South
Seattle, WA 98134
–Written by tamacbsseattle