Joys of science: Robotics offers fine lesson

Joys of science

Robotics offers fine lesson

Mar. 24, 2004 12:00 AM

If ever an event captured the pure joy of science - the uplifting sense of discovery and accomplishment that science can bring - it is the national FIRST Robotics Competition, a madcap, high-energy tour de force for young scientists created 12 years ago by inventor Dean Kamen.

For the second year in a row, Phoenix served as the site of a regional competition. For three days earlier this month, teams of high school students ran the remote-controlled robots they had built through a maze of exercises.

The event at Veterans Memorial Coliseum was a rollicking, often thrilling, demonstration of what young people can accomplish when they set their inquiring minds to it.

About 40-odd teams, including several from Mexico and Canada, spent six weeks building robots from kits supplied by New Hampshire-based FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”

In the competition, which goes to extraordinary lengths to emphasize teamwork and cooperation, the robots climbed steps, pushed rubber balls across the floor and hung from a horizontal bar.

But even more entertaining than the exotic robots were the teams of kids: exuberant, wacky and (yes) proudly, enthusiastically geeky young people who squeezed gallons of joy from the slickly produced competition.

Beside instructing students in the finer aspects of high-tech machinery and teamwork, the competition also helps train them in the reality of scientific inquiry: Science requires sponsorship, and the students are expected to find sponsors for their teams.

Numerous Arizona companies - alas, too numerous to mention here - provided financial assistance and even their facilities to the teams as they built their robots.

While teams of robot-builders certainly “won” in the Arizona regional, FIRST Robotics consciously encourages the concept of shared victory. In all, more than 900 teams compete across the country in 26 such regional events, culminating in the championship event held this year in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, which 7,000 young people are expected to attend.

Many of the teams that competed in Arizona will travel to Atlanta.

But, by design, it is not readily apparent to most observers who the “victors” of the Phoenix regional are.

Except, that is, the kids.