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Five local high school teams among 34 vying in robot competition

Saturday, March 15, 2003

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

With music blaring, flags waving and teenagers cheering at the top of their lungs, the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center was electric with energy yesterday.

Amelia Brown, left, and Amanda Bigler, both seniors at Grandview Heights High School in Columbus, Ohio, celebrate their team's performance yesterday during the FIRST Robotics Competition at the Petersen Events Center in Oakland. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

While wearing matching team T-shirts in a rainbow of colors, several youngsters demonstrated their spirit with added flair.

One group donned black top hats decorated with orange and yellow flames. Face paint camouflaged the identity of some students.

At the heart of the din and excitement was a competition based on brain rather than brawn.

For the first time, Pittsburgh is hosting a regional FIRST -- For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology -- Robotics Competition. The three-day event ends today with final contest rounds and announcement of winners.

About 500 students on 34 teams from five states and Ontario, Canada, are seeking to qualify for the national contest, which will be April 11 and 12 in Houston, Texas.

Local high schools fielding teams included Allderdice, Peabody and Schenley in Pittsburgh, Keystone Oaks High School and North Hills Senior High School.

Alumni and team mentor Ved Vyas, left, coach Eric Laurenson and Allderdice sophomore David Lloyd prepare the Allderdice and Peabody team robot for the FIRST Robotics Competition yesterday at the Petersen Events Center. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

"If we want to make Pittsburgh the robotics capital of the world, then we need this type of event to raise the profile of the city," said Bopaya Bidanda, chairman of Pitt's industrial engineering department. "These kids put a lot into this. People told me that, but until you see it, you don't know."

In 1989, inventor Dean Kamen founded FIRST, based in Manchester, N.H., to inspire youngsters to appreciate science and technology by giving them experience with robots.

The competitions began a few years later after Kamen became concerned that the country was not graduating enough engineers, said Robert Hammond, robotics competition director for FIRST.

"We're importing engineers at an alarming rate," Hammond said. "Dean saw the problem and that something needed to be done to make engineering more attainable and fun ... so students will see engineers as role models."

As part of the FIRST competition, school teams pay $5,000 to register and receive parts and software worth more than $25,000. Students have to design a robot according to rules intentionally designed to be so challenging that the youngsters require help from school staff and professional engineers.

At regional competitions, which have been taking place across the country in the past few weeks, robots are pitted against each other in a game that tests their sophistication and durability.

This year's game is called "Stack Attack." The object is to maneuver the robotics to knock down stacks of blue storage containers and to push them onto one side of a playing field while pushing them out the opposite side.

During yesterday's contest, two teams from different schools were paired into a red or blue "alliance," which competed against each other. That meant four robots at a time were zipping -- or in some cases stalling -- across the floor.

After about two minutes of pushing and crashing, the alliance with the most containers on its side was declared the winner. Then the robots were hustled off for repairs.

As the Allderdice/Peabody team called "Dicebody" huddled over its robot, Allderice junior Matei Sarbu, 17, said the FIRST competition had confirmed his interest in an engineering career.

"I just wish more people would show up and support us," he said.

One committed booster was Allderdice robotics coordinator Joseph Abraham, who was busy overseeing robot repairs, even though he suffered a heart attack less than two weeks ago.

Helping to compensate for any lack of local fans was the camaraderie among teams.

The "Botcats" from Grandview Heights, Ohio, for example, helped Schenley's team, The X Bots, rebuild their robot Thursday night. Yesterday, the Botcats, who brought black pompoms, a megaphone and a large, costumed bobcat head, also cheered for Schenley.

"I love it," said Schenley junior Terry Evans, 16, reveling in his first FIRST contest. "I can't wait until next year. We're going to be No. 1."

Carmen Lee can be reached at clee@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1884.

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