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Steam power rules the day at FIRST

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 07. 2017 9:42PM
Hannah Mellon, a junior from Prospect Mountain High School in Alton, wears a steampunk mask during the kickoff of the First Robotics new game called "Steamworks" at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester on Saturday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)
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MANCHESTER - Full steam ahead!

More than 1,000 people from seven states, a few wearing stovepipe hats, gears and goggles, packed the field house Saturday at Southern New Hampshire University for the unveiling of this year's FIRST Robotics Competition challenge, dubbed FIRST STEAMWORKS.

The steamworks theme is a spin on steampunk, a sub genre of science fiction that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th century industrial steam-powered machinery. It is a fitting topic because FIRST founder Dean Kamen has a giant steam engine in his Bedford home, a machine students got a chance to see in a video previewing the STEAMWORKS challenge.

More than 83,400 high school students on 3,336 teams at 123 venues around the world watched Saturday's 2017 kickoff via Twitch Livestream, but only those in Manchester saw the actual playing field in person.

"A lot of kids will tell you, 'I don't like science and math.' But they all love (science fiction). Well, the only difference between science fiction and science is timing," Kamen, inventor and president of DEKA Research & Development, said on the video. "We want kids, through their FIRST experience, to realize that whatever is in their imagination could become reality if they develop the tools - science, technology, engineering - and apply those tools into innovations to turn today's science fiction into tomorrow's science."

The playing field, which was unveiled for the first time in the college gymnasium, was quickly filled with enthusiastic students and their engineering mentors. Students immediately went to work measuring anything and everything, examining the gears and taking up-close photographs with their cellphones.

Toby Clarke, program manager for the FIRST Robotics Competition, explained that this year's competition involves two teams, each comprised of an alliance of three robot teams, competing to power up an airship. The robots work together to collect "fuel" - green balls - to toss into a boiler to power the airship. The airship is missing gears to power the rotors. The robots have to deliver the gear to the human pilot who, in a first, is on the airship on the playing field. The pilot connects the gears to the appropriate rotor, four in all, and once a gear train is complete, the rotor can be started.

The pilot then lowers ropes for the robots to climb aboard the airship that's ready to takeoff.

Kamen was on hand to talk to students and engineers. Asked if he had accomplished what he set out to do 26 years ago when he founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), Kamen said he hadn't. His goal was for FIRST to be in every school in the country and for every child to have the opportunity to be exposed to science and be part of the future.

"We're very happy but never satisfied," he said. That's saying something since FIRST is in 52,000 schools in 86 countries.

Looking out at the crowded STEAMWORKS playing field, Kamen smiled and said, "It's really obvious that the kids love it - the steampunk theme."

Hannah Mellon, 16, a junior at Prospect Mountain High School in Alton, clearly embraced the program, wearing an appropriate steampunk mask that she bought while on vacation. "I thought it would be perfect for the theme," she said. It was.

The Prospect team stood out in orange, hooded sweatshirts with a navy blue "BOB" written on front. BOB, she explained, is their robot's name. They wanted to humanize it.

Benji Spetter-Goldsteain, 17, of Newton (Mass.) North High School said this year's challenge seems more advanced than last year, when a medieval theme debuted. This is Spetter-Goldstein's fourth year on his school's FIRST team, and he said it seems each year the competition becomes more complex.

"It gives you a lot of freedom in the way you want to design your robot," he said.

Greg Gorman of IBM in Allen, Texas attended the kickoff on behalf of his company, one of the sponsors, but also as an individual who mentors a high school team. He, too, was taking photographs because it was the first chance to actually see the playing field.

He said the STEAMWORKS theme is creative and adds a fun factor to the competition and hopefully will draw more students, particularly girls, to the competition. "We need creative marketing people who know technology," he said.

Justine Roy, 18, is a freshman at Worcester (Mass.) Polytechnic College where she is studying robotics and mechanical engineering, an interest she developed while a four-year member of her FIRST team at Watertown (Connecticut) High School. She is now mentoring this year's the Watertown team.

"I think it's going to be a very good game," she said.

Lauren Hatfield, 17, a senior at Merrimack High School was excited that a student was going to be on the playing field for the first time and that a Victorian steampunk flair was added for an artistic touch. She was a bit disappointed, however.

"I really thought we were going to be flying robots this year," she said.

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