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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

NASA Langley Encourages Student Robot Teams to Go Into 'Overdrive'

A group of teenagers is coming all the way from Hawaii to Virginia this week to demonstrate their skill with a remote control robot and some giant rubber balls.

They're one of 63 teams, mostly from Virginia and North Carolina, scheduled to compete in this year's Virginia regional FIRST Robotics competition at Virginia Commonwealth University's (VCU) Siegel Center in Richmond. The eighth annual three-day event, which is free and open to the public March 6-8, is sponsored by NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. and VCU.

Jeff Seaton, an aerospace engineer at NASA Langley, has been involved with the regional competition for 11 years. "I started out as a team mentor and now I'm a master of ceremonies for several regional events and the championship in Atlanta," says Seaton. "The atmosphere at a FIRST Robotics competition is hard to describe. It's a combination of a rock concert and
the NCAA basketball tournament, except you have robots and it's focused on engineering."

That excitement is what inventor and founder Dean Kamen was looking for when he founded FIRST or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology in 1989. He wanted to inspire youngsters' participation in science and technology, "by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and
technology heroes," according to the FIRST Robotics website.

Participation is what the competition is all about. Working with engineering mentors, high school students had six weeks to design, build and test a robot that can meet a specific engineering challenge. Fifteen hundred teams from the U.S., Great Britain, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Mexico,
the Netherlands and Israel all picked up a common kit of parts that included motors, batteries, a control system and automation components back in January. The hitch... there are no instructions. It was up to the teams to figure out how to create a robot that could play this year's game, which is called "FIRST Overdrive."

"The students get the chance to work side by side with practicing professionals," says former team mentor Seaton. "They're also able to be part of a team that's solving a problem that looks impossible. I have repeatedly been surprised at how creative the teenagers can be and at some
of the very innovative ideas they've come up with and actually built."

For "FIRST Overdrive" the students designed their robots to race around a 27-by 54-foot carpeted track that has a center median and a six and a half foot overpass. On the overpass sit four 40-inch inflated "trackballs," two per team. The aim of the game is for each team's robots to knock down those balls, move them around the track and pass them either over or under the overpass. Teams score points for crossing the finish line as many times as possible and can get extra points for passing the balls over the overpass and putting the trackballs back on it at the end. Two alliances of three teams compete against each other during a two minute and 15 second match.

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