Robot Games: A Connecticut Championship Of Invention
HARTFORD — Teams cheer, music blares and the points pile up as the energetic emcee gives a play-by-play of the action in the arena.
It's not basketball or soccer. It's the Connecticut State Championship FIRST Robotics Competition, and the players in the arena are robots built by local high school students.
The Connecticut Association of Schools partnered with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) to hold the first statewide robotics competition Saturday in Hartford.
"It's like any athletic state championship," said Jenny Smith, marketing volunteer for the Connecticut branch of FIRST.
David Powers, a senior on the GUS Robotics team from Meriden, said that although the competition was held outside the normal season — the international championship was held last month — there was a lot at stake.
"A lot of pride," he said. "A lot of bragging rights."
About 40 teams competed Saturday, with robots they built over a six-week period. The second floor of the State Armory was transformed into a stadium where the robots — operated by their teenage creators — shot flying discs into multiple goals set at different heights.
Two 10-foot metal pyramids stood in the center of the playing field, and robots were designed for and scored on both their disc shooting ability and how high up the pyramids they could climb.
Powers, whose team was undefeated in the qualifying rounds Saturday morning, said he has been involved with the FIRST programs since age 3. His father helped start GUS Robotics, and Powers said he has developed a passion for machining. He said he will attend Worcester Polytechnic Institute next year to study mechanical engineering.
"There's really nothing like this," Powers said. "It's so different from other sports."
Many local teams have gone from being small clubs to full-fledged school teams, Smith said. The FIRST organization, based in Manchester, N.H., designs programs for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and the students who participated in Saturday's event were at the varsity level.
"It's not just about the robots competing," Smith said.
Teams work together to use a standard set of parts to meet the challenge of the game, which changes from year to year. They share designs, they trouble-shoot, they raise money, they market themselves to sponsors and, in the process, they develop the tools they need to succeed in life, she said.
Mike Gentry, mentor for the Old Lyme Techno-Ticks, said he got involved with the competitions after his son joined a team. His son graduated, but Gentry stayed on and has been a team mentor for 15 years.
Gentry said the Techno-Ticks motto is, "It's in your blood."
"'It' is the infectious spirit of FIRST," he said.
A not-for-profit organization, FIRST was founded 20 years ago by Dean Kamen, known for inventing the Segway. FIRST's programs give students the opportunity to pursue science, technology and engineering, while also competing in regional and international robotics competitions.
The competition season is from January to mid-summer, Smith said. The event staff is 99 percent volunteers, including local engineers, Ph.D students and FIRST robotics competition alumni.
Eric Eckhardt is one of those volunteers and also the emcee for many FIRST events in the region, including Saturday's. Eckhardt, of Boston, said the best part of the FIRST programs is seeing the kids grow.
"I think this is exactly what we need in America," he said.