Terrence Hutchins, left, a senior, and Shea Boutwell, a junior at Merrimack High School, ask questions about the Vault system during the worldwide kickoff of the new FIRST Robotics Competition held at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester on Saturday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)
Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST Robotics, is shown during the worldwide kickoff of the new FIRST Robotics Competition held at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester on Saturday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)
Nathan Bouchard, left, a freshman and Brian Steffen, a senior, both from Goffstown High on the West High team, record measurements during the worldwide kickoff of the new FIRST Robotics Competition held at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester on Saturday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)
Jaimie Westlake, a Prospect Mountain Alumnus and freshman at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, inspects the game field during the worldwide kickoff of the new FIRST Robotics Competition held at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester on Saturday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)
Zac Schofield, a Hollis-Brookline senior, measures the power cube, a new game piece, during the worldwide kickoff of the new FIRST Robotics Competition held at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester on Saturday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)
MANCHESTER - "Don't even ask. I can't. It's Build Season."
Sixteen-year-old Abbey Durell was sporting a custom-designed sweatshirt with that message Saturday at Southern New Hampshire University's Field House.
The Manchester Memorial High School junior was among hundreds of students crammed into the gym to get the first glimpse of this year's FIRST Robotics Competition challenge.
Saturday's kickoff was broadcast live to 137 locations around the world. But the lucky team members from eight states, Canada and even Chile who attended the live event here had the opportunity to see firsthand what the playing field for this year's "Power Up" challenge will look like - and to hear in person from one of their heroes.
When Bedford entrepreneur/inventor Dean Kamen dreamed up FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) nearly 30 years ago, he wanted it to generate the kind of excitement and competition that usually accompanies national sporting championships.
And judging by the numbers, FIRST has exceeded those expectations: 3,653 teams from 27 nations will compete this year in 158 events around the globe.
But Kamen told the youngsters that FIRST is not about the robots. "It's never been about the robots," he said. "We are not using kids to build robots. We're using robots to build kids."
The crowd roared its approval.
Woodie Flowers, a professor emeritus at MIT, helps design each year's game and co-chairs FIRST's executive advisory board. Like his friend Kamen, the ponytailed tech guru has achieved cult status with the FIRST kids.
Flowers urged each team to develop a "canon" of ethical behavior before the competition begins. "I almost guarantee that at least once during this season, your ethics will be challenged a bit," he said. "Rest assured, you will do better if you've thought about it in advance."
That will serve them in their professional lives as well, he told them.
Finally, the game was unveiled, and the students and their adult mentors greeted the challenge with approving murmurs. They now have six weeks to build, using kits of parts, robots that can perform a series of complex tasks, from handling cubes to climbing a ladder-like structure.
The youngsters will get the chance to test their robots' skills in regional competitions later this year.
Teams were already plotting their strategies as they streamed onto the playing field yesterday, handling and measuring various components of the game.
Teammates from Prospect Mountain High School wore orange sweatshirts reading "BOB," the FIRST team nickname adopted on a whim more than 20 years ago. Team captain Tim Guyer, 17, a senior from Alton, got Kamen to autograph his two years ago and added Flowers' signature last year.
Guyer spoke admiringly about this year's challenge. "This is a game about communication," he said. "It's a lot different than other years."
"It's good for my last year," he said.
His teammate, Kelly Barnes, 15, a sophomore from Barnstead, said FIRST is "a really cool opportunity" for high school students to learn how to solve technical challenges as a team. "It's overwhelming and crazy, but it definitely is the hardest fun you'll ever have," she said.
"We've been waiting all year for it," agreed teammate Hannah Mellon, 17, a senior from Alton.
Brendan Browne of Londonderry has been involved in FIRST for more than a decade. He was on Londonderry High's PVC Pirates team for three years, and has been a mentor for the eight years since, first for a Windham team and now at his alma mater.
He believes in FIRST, Browne said. "I think it has something unique to offer to every student involved."
This was Gov. Chris Sununu's first chance to welcome the FIRST teams to New Hampshire and he was clearly enjoying the task. "This is awesome," the MIT graduate told the crowd. "I'm in a room of 1,000 engineers and I feel at home for the first time in a long time."
Sununu called Kamen "an absolute tornado, not just of ideas, but complete implementation."
He noted New Hampshire this year invested more than $1 million of public funding in the FIRST program, which resulted in the creation of more than 100 new teams here. "For the first time, if you are in a public school and you wanted a team, you got one, no questions asked," he told the crowd.
He also made a pitch for more corporate sponsorships. "If you're from a company and you're not in this room, get ready, you're going to write a check too," he said.
His predecessor in the corner office, Maggie Hassan, now a U.S. senator, told the youngsters the world needs what they have to offer. "We need gracious citizens going forward, because what FIRST teaches us more than anything else is that life ... is not a zero-sum game," she said. "We all do better when we can come together and provide each other the tools and insights that raise everybody's game."
And that's the "homework" assignment Kamen gave the teams and their mentors. Just because it's called FIRST doesn't mean that someone has to be last, or even second, he said. "I think the world needs every kid to be first," he said. "You are the models to help do it.