Students from MIT and Cambridge high school team up in robot contest


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Sarah H. Wright
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Students from MIT and Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School (CRLS) have teamed up to design and build a robot for The FIRST Competition, a national engineering contest that culminates in April at Disney World.

FIRST -- For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology -- is a national robotics and engineering competition that teams high school students with engineers from companies and universities in an intense 6 week design competition involving more than 150 teams from around the country. FIRST sponsors include NASA, Motorola, AT&T, Honeywell, and LEGO. FIRST teams will compete in national trials at Epcot in Florida on April 2-4. The FIRST nationals are televised on ESPN.

The team's 1997 robot and their work-in-progress were on display at the high school on February 11, just four weeks in advance of FIRST's regional competition in New Hampshire on March 12-14.

Roy Carter, a science and technology teacher at the Rindge School of Technical Arts (RSTA) at CRLS, was instrumental in getting FIRST off the ground.

"This very important national engineering contest provides an opportunity for students to see design and building processes similar to what we have in our pre-engineering courses at RSTA/CRLS but at a more sophisticated level. It's very gratifying to have the MIT students work with ours, and we have found the MIT students to be very helpful and gracious in sharing their expertise," said Mr. Carter.

The faculty advisor for MIT students on the FIRST team is David Wallace, Esther & Harold Edgerton Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. Other MIT faculty involved with the robot's design are David Gordon Wilson, Professor Emeritus, Mechanical Engineering, and Sanjay E. Sarma, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

Vivek Nadkarni, a graduate student in electrical engineering at MIT, commented about the rewards of his involvement in FIRST.

"I am learning a great deal about managing teams through FIRST. An amazing fact that just struck me while working with high school students, is that the students are capable of getting a great deal more done if you spend an extra 5 or 10 minutes explaining how they should go about breaking up the task that you have assigned them, instead of telling them just the final objective and leaving it to them to break it up into bite sized pieces."

A Pilot/CRLS student, Elizabeth Tyree, added, "I understood the gist of the competition after going to regionals last year, but it didn't really hit me what it's all about till I went to the national competition: it's all about engineering and teamwork. Even though it is competitive, people are willing to share their ideas and materials and whatever they have."

A YEAR OF WORK

Planning for the 1998 competition started in April 1997, after last year's competition at Epcot. Students from MIT taught a class at CRLS during the fall semester introducing the high school students to basic engineering concepts and prepping them for the 6 intense weeks of design and implementation ahead. The MIT/CRLS team came in 71st out of 141 entrants in 1997, and the new FIRST team, called "Onslaught," is determined to work together to win.

Said Ela Ben-Ur, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, "We are paying attention to detail -- following all the processes of good design, and getting each team member involved owning some part of the effort."

"I am also impressed with the fact that here are two design teams working this year --- one on engineering design and one on marketing/media --- and I see this as a model that more progressive engineering schools are taking. It is reflective of the real world practices, where an engineering person and marketing staff work as teams," added Mr. Carter.

The FIRST competition resembles the mother of all robot-building contests, MIT's famed Design 2.70.

As in the 2.70 contest, FIRST robots must conform to specific dimensions (2.5'x3'x4') and they must act in particular ways, such as moving about; lifting balls; dropping balls onto raised rails, and performing defensive tasks.

When competing, three robots are placed in a hexagonal arena which contains several "goals." The object of the game is to place rubber balls 20" in diameter on horizontal rail structures while knocking off balls belonging to other teams. A second goal is to get balls into a small central circle surrounded by railing. The points are determined by the number of balls in the goals at the end of the session.

Teams throughout the country receive identical "kits" at the beginning of January; they have six weeks to design and build their competing robots. The kits are purchased from FIRST, and they include items such as 2 power drill motors, 4 car seat motors, 2 tape window motors, complete pneumatic system with on-board compressor, and raw materials including multiple thicknesses of aluminum, polycarb, and plywood.

But the main significance of the FIRST contest is the collaboration between high school and college students, as the general goal of the contest itself is to interest younger students in science and engineering.

Will Lentz, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering, said, "I enjoy teaching the students and find it really rewarding when they stop taking directions and start showing initiative and designing parts of the robot by themselves."

RSTA/CRLS student Joel Payne commented about his experience with FIRST, "I think I have gotten out of the competition the knowledge of the controls of the robot, and how to perform functions that I didn't think were easily done. I'm excited about this project because we are going to design this robot and we will be able to see in the competition how well our planning paid off."

Corporate sponsors who take part in FIRST get exposure to bright young engineers in high schools. Corporate and university sponsors can use FIRST as a medium to create closer ties with the neighborhood, and generate goodwill in the region. Engineering companies also get a chance to promote themselves at the national competition, where hundreds of other engineers are present.

LEGO, the toy company, is a sponsor of the MIT-RSTA Onslaught team. Public relations officer Catherine Lee commented, "We here at the LEGO company commend the FIRST organization because it is an initiative that encourages kids to study science and it actively involves them in technology. We think it is a tremendous project and we believe strongly in it. We worked with FIRST last year and we look forward to a continued partnership with them. We feel it is critical to spark kids' interest in science and technology and we feel that FIRST is a strong vehicle to achieve that goal."

Brit and Alexander d'Arbeloff contributed $10,000 to the MIT-RSTA team. Alexander d'Arbeloff is the Chairman of the Corporation (MIT's board of trustees) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Still, while the MIT-RSTA Onslaught team works feverishly on designing and engineering their robot, they must face the same challenges any entrepreneurial group faces. They must generate both interest in and support for their work.

Ela Ben-Ur summarized the MIT-RSTA FIRST team wish list, noting,"Engineers are welcome to come and be involved to be occasional advisors to full team members to mentors. We are inviting the parents to be involved in fundraising or in supporting their children's involvement. And, in the long run, we are looking for a company to form a long term partnership with the MIT/CRLS team and get involved with the engineering and/or educational aspects of the program. "

For more information and directions to the open house, check the MIT-CRLS Onslaught Team web site: http://web.mit.edu/first/www


Topics: Artificial intelligence, Cambridge, Boston and region, Contests and academic competitions, Volunteering, outreach, public service

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