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GOING FOR FIRST: Area robotics team advances to world championship

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POTSDAM — It’s like a National Football League for the mind, and a team of local high school students just made it to the ‘Super Bowl.’

A group of Massena and Salmon River central school district students, sponsored by Clarkson University, has reached the world championships of the FIRST Robotic Competition.

The team won their regional at the BAE Systems/Granite State Regional in Manchester, N.H. last weekend, advancing to The FRC Championship in St. Louis, Mo., in April.

Clarkson sponsors two teams from Massena and Salmon River, comprised of more than 50 students, said team advisorJames J. Carroll,a Clarkson electrical and computer engineering professor.

“We historically have performed at a pretty high level,” he said. “This is our 15th year of doing this, we started in 1998 and this is the fifth time we’ve won a regional.”

Both teams are mentored by Clarkson students, who travel to the schools to advise team members.

“We make sure we spend a lot of it working at Clarkson and at Massena high School,” said Libby S. Kamen, a Clarkson senior and FIRST mentor. “We work with our students and making sure they are doing well in school, they learn engineering skills, how to design and fabricate, but they also learn how to compete fairly. You’re in FIRST to compete with everyone at their best.”

The other north country team was eliminated in the competition’s quarterfinals, but will have another chance to qualify for the championships in a Boston, Mass. regional later this month.

The competitions take on a festive atmosphere with all the accoutrements of a major sporting event, said Ms. Kamen.

“You spend a weekend at a competition and it feels like you’re at a big football game,” she said. “It is a great time, there are marching bands and announcers, it is like a pep rally.”

This year, the students had to design human-sized robots capable of throwing a frisbee across a 1,458-square-foot field.

“These systems are welded by the students, there’s a lot of machine shop work to create the parts,” Mr. Carroll said.

In the competition, the robots compete against each other in two three-team alliances, with the winners throwing the most frisbees into a designated scoring area. The competition involves an autonomous segment where robots are programmed to score on their own, and another period where the students direct the robot using remote control.

“These are really diverse engineering challenges, every year the task is different,” Ms. Kamen said. “This year it is Frisbees — but the competition itself is less of a teaching tool than the actual build. Basically the competition is a celebration of everything we’ve worked on.”

The competition was developed by Ms. Kamen’s uncle, inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, to get students interested in science and engineering.

“Dean noticed that there are kids coming out of high schools, thinking the only way they can be successful and popular is in the NBA or in Hollywood,” she said. “They have to be a rock star or a sports hero. Kids weren’t having the same encouragement in science fields. By making then engage on a sports-like level, it makes them see engineering the same way”

FIRST competitions are divided into different divisions separated by age and technological sophistication, starting with middle-school age students designing smaller robots made from Legos and ending up with the high school competitions. Clarkson hosts tournaments for the lower divisions, then mentors and recruits students from the higher levels, Mr. Carroll said.

“This is the upper-end of the pipeline designed to continue allowing students to learn, and to work very closely with Clarkson students on campus while they are performing those designs,” he said. “This is designed to help the students make real concrete decisions on whether they like this type of engineering work.”

Ms. Kamen said Clarkson offers special housing for alumni of the FIRST program.

“I picked Clarkson because of the FIRST program because they sponsor FIRST Teams and recruit FIRST alumni,” she said.

FIRST, short for ‘For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology’ introduces students to robotics, and with it concepts of logical thinking, programming, teamwork, budgeting and time management before they arrive at a university, said Ms. Kamen.

“Our students have so much technical knowledge already, most of the local schools have technology classes,” she said. “FIRST is about applying that knowledge to a real challenge and working as a team to overcome it.”

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