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FIRST puts science skills to the test

NASHUA -- Young engineers are being put to the test this weekend as they battle it out to determine whose robotic genius is ready for the big time.

Thirty-nine teams from all over New England are competing at the Granite State District Championship in the FIRST Robotics Competition, an event originally spearheaded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen to promote science, technology, engineering and math concepts.

"This is not all about success. We are a team from humble beginnings, and we have come a long way," said Aaron Peterson, 17, of Merrimack.

Peterson's team, Mechanical Mayhem, is the largest team competing this weekend with 40 students — most of them home-schoolers representing 15 different communities in New Hampshire.

"This group has inspired me, and now I plan to study mechanical engineering," Peterson said on Friday before his team took the field for competition.

Peterson's story is the heart and soul behind the FIRST Robotics initiative, said Bruce Linton, executive director of FIRST Robotics in New England.

"The objective is to provide excitement and hands-on experiments related to the STEM fields," said Linton. "But this is not just science and technology, this is teaching 21st century skills such as problem solving and working as a team. It really is a sporting event complete with fans, mascots and referees."

In early January, teams were given their robotic kits when this year's game — Aerial Assist — was unveiled to competitors. Teams comprised of students in grades nine through 12 had several weeks to design, build and program a robot up to 150-pounds charged with meeting select goals.

In this year's challenge, the robots had to maneuver large balls, with the objective of scoring as many goals as possible during a match with six total robots. Drivers remotely control the robots from behind a protective, clear wall, creating alliances along the way and trying to earn additional points for various ball moves.

"It is a lot of work. These kids take this very seriously," said Linton. "The real magic here is the volunteers, the coaches and the mentors that make all of this possible."

The FIRST community is a dedicated group of students and parents who are passionate about not only the competition, but the camaraderie as well, he said.

It takes a significant amount of teamwork to complete the necessary tasks and make the challenge a success, said Bill Degon of Pelham, a member of Team Pythons.

Right before taking the field on Friday, his team's robot was having some technical difficulties that members were trying to fix during the last few minutes before competition.

"We are having some problems getting the arm to launch by itself. The motor is not putting out as much power as it was last week, so we are trying to figure this out," said a concerned Degon, who was competing for his first time.

The experience, said Degon, has convinced him to pursue a career in computer science.

For Abbie Petersen, a junior at Manchester High School Central, FIRST Robotics has been an experience that she has come to appreciate and respect.

"I really like the hands-on environment, which you don't get in the classroom," said Petersen, who is considering a career path in aeronautical engineering.

FIRST programs start in kindergarten with the Junior FIRST Lego League, followed by FIRST Lego League for grades four through eight, and then the FIRST Tech Challenge in grades seven through 12.

The teams scoring the highest points in this weekend's FIRST Robotics Competition, which continues today, will move on compete in the district championship at Boston University in April, followed by the world competition in St. Louis.

The action continues from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at Nashua High School South, 36 Riverside St. There is no admission fee. For more details, visit www.usfirst.org.

khoughton@newstote.com


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