Students get clever with robots

This weekend, a rowdy, banner-waiving, youthful crowd filled the New Haven Coliseum. Dressed in team colors, they formed a conga line and danced down the aisles to the song “Hot, hot, hot.”

But these high school students were not cheering for their favorite sports team. They were rooting for robots.

Saturday marked the end of the United Technologies New England Regional FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition in New Haven. The goal was to build a robot that could put as many soccer balls as possible in a container and get the container into the goal.

Sixty-three teams of high school students, teachers, and technicians attended the event, which is intended to foster an appreciation of science and technology in high school students.

Referees watched every move as the student-controlled robots raced around a playing field in one-on-one matches to gather balls and place them in portable goals.

The robots had to move the goals into scoring zones and return to their starting point before the two minutes buzzer sounded. Students served as the human element of the competition by manually throwing balls into the goals.

Meanwhile, in the stands, the crowd, with faces painted and noise makers in hand, cheered uncontrollably, as if the robots were basketball stars dunking the balls.

Representing New Haven in the competition, students from Hill Regional Career High School and Common Ground Charter School partnered with machinists from Yale and volunteer engineers from the United Illuminating Company.

Their robot, C.R.A.S.H., did not make it to the finals. A glitch in the robot, though eventually repaired, set the team back early on in the competition.

“[After the loss], our students showed more of a resolve that they wanted to do better next year than they showed disappointment,” said mentor Matt Sanchez ’03.

Sanchez has mentored New Haven’s FIRST team for two years, helping students with the electrical and computer elements of the robot.

“I think it’s a really great opportunity to teach kids about engineering,” Sanchez said. “Building a robot and operating it in competition is an application that you can’t recreate in a normal high school setting.”

There were three winning teams and three runners up in the competition. Student winners from Rhode Island’s Middletown High School were ecstatic about their victory. Their robot, “Rhode Warrior,” was one of the three that placed first in the competition. With trophies in hand, they crowded around their robot and reflected on their hard work.

“We put in a thousand man hours into this robot,” one student said. “Our sweat and blood is in it and it paid off.”

“I feel on top of the world,” said another.

Northeastern University sponsored schools all over Boston in the making of their robot, “Husky V.” It finished in the lower 25 percent, but mentor Jim Vennyan, an engineering professor at Northeastern University, said students got something else out of the experience.

“The purpose of this program really is to get high school students involved in engineering, so on that front, this is the best year ever,” Vennyan said. “Many kids who go into this are thinking about engineering for the rest of their lives, so this experience helps them to make an informed decision.”

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