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Robot combat, STEM promotion blend at competition

Union Leader Correspondent

March 06. 2016 9:17PM
A red robot reaches the castle tower as two others maneuver behind it. (ELI OKUN/UNION LEADER CORRESPONDENT)

WINDHAM — In the Windham High School gym this weekend, robots scrambled over moats and rough terrain, lowered a drawbridge, tossed boulders and — if they were having a really good day — scaled a castle tower.

A sometimes raucous crowd in the bleachers cheered on competing alliances of robots as if it were a basketball game.

And though the medieval obstacles weren’t real, the stakes were high nonetheless at the New England District’s Granite State event in the FIRST Robotics Competition, which drew about 32 teams of high school students and their contraptions from across New England.

By the end of Sunday, an alliance of teams from Dublin, Gilford and Bridgewater, Mass., scored a dramatic upset. The alliance, seeded sixth, toppled the first seed by a razor-thin margin in a tiebreaker game — after one round had to be replayed due to a judging error.

The three winners move on to the district championships in Hartford, Conn., and then perhaps the world championships in St. Louis, both next month.

Also heading to the district championships are the winners of a few more community-oriented awards, including FIRST’s most prestigious honor, the Granite State Chairman’s Award, which went to the team from Ayer-Shirley Regional High School in Ayer, Mass.

This year’s competition kicked off six weeks ago, when the parameters and nature of the challenge were unveiled and teams began feverishly assembling machines and strategies.

The Monty Python-inspired challenge pitted two alliances of three robots against each other. Autonomous at first and then tele-operated for most of the round, the robots tried to score points by landing goals in the towers or making defensive maneuvers over the span of a couple of minutes.

In between rounds, teams cycled through bouts of frantic exuberance in the pits, where they fixed, tweaked and plotted for the next battle. Warning calls of “Robot!” rang out as people steered the machines through crowded pathways.

Sarah Ernst, a junior and three-sport athlete at Ayer-Shirley, said she enjoyed planning strategy throughout the six weeks of preparation, which ranged from tedious or tense stretches to breakthrough moments of excitement.

“It’s like another sport to me,” she said. At Ayer-Shirley, it sort of is another sport: The school accepts it as a varsity letter.

Organizers estimated an average of 30 kids per team and a total of more than 1,000 attendees over the course of weekend. That included dignitaries like Gov. Maggie Hassan and Rep. Frank Guinta, who visited Saturday.

New Hampshire teams are close to FIRST’s roots: Founded a quarter-century ago by Granite State inventor Dean Kamen, the competition has grown to encompass hundreds of thousands of students in dozens of countries.

Though the clash of robots offers quite a spectacle, FIRST has some lofty goals as well: bolstering interest in STEM fields, building community and inspiring teenagers to make a difference in the world.

“This is the fun part … but really the point of FIRST is to ultimately get kids excited about STEM,” said Maddie Burris, “and ultimately change the culture.”

Burris, a member of the district planning committee who competed in FIRST herself as an Arizona high school student, gave a speech Sunday morning in which she urged participants to begin tackling contemporary crises like climate change now — not in 20 years.

A FIRST scholarship program taps hundreds of partners to offer $25 million in college scholarship money to competition alumni.

“FIRST is a place where these kids can belong,” Burris said. “They’re proving to themselves that yeah, they can make do what they want to do with their life and they can make a difference.”

That’s been the case for Alex Corbeil, a team captain and senior at Campbell High School in Litchfield, who has taken part all four years and will study chemical engineering at the University of New Hampshire next year.

“Being on this team and having this experience has definitely helped push me in that direction,” he said.

And the competition can help model other positive traits beyond the academic realm, said Randy August, a robot inspector: “FIRST students, I think, work through problems, instead of expecting somebody to give them solutions.”

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