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Robotics Competition A High-Energy Event

March 12, 2006
By MARK SPENCER, Courant Staff Writer

One kid was wearing a fuzzy blue-and-white chicken costume. Another dressed as a silver rocket. There were boys sporting cobalt blue capes and girls twirling orange feather boas.

The teenagers bopped and bounced to the rock, rap and pop that blasted from the speakers at the Connecticut Convention Center on Saturday. Line dances formed and dissolved in the crowd.

A casual observer could be forgiven for not realizing that some of the best young minds in the region had converged in the cavernous hall, teenagers with enough collective brainpower to melt steel.

Amid an atmosphere akin to a pro wrestling match, 40 teams from area high schools competed in the three-day United Technologies New England regional of the FIRST Robotics Competition, an international program that engineer and inventor Dean Kamen founded.

The idea behind the program, which now attracts more than 1,100 teams worldwide, is to encourage young people to think like scientists and engineers while working with mentors to create a robot to compete in a game designed each year by the organizers.

But for students and mentors alike, the program is about more than having one robot outmaneuver another. Just ask Eddie Rodriguez, a 2000 graduate of Hartford Public High School, who is now a mentor.

"It changed my life completely," Rodriguez said Saturday, just after helping students find and fix a loose wire on their robot minutes before the quarterfinals started.

A mediocre student before joining the program, Rodriguez became motivated to earn A's. He went on to college, and is now an engineer at Pratt & Whitney.

Three other Hartford High 2000 graduates also have returned to mentor their former team: Madeline Sola, Yeshiva Cohen and Nery Cruz. Like Rodriguez, Cruz and Sola are engineers, and Cohen is a teacher. Cruz and Cohen are engaged to be married, and Rodriguez and Sola will be in their wedding.

Cruz said he was shy when he was in high school, a smart but directionless student before entering the program.

"A lot of the kids, I look at them and think, `I was like that in high school,'" he said. "I learned you can be intelligent and social at the same time."

Teachers and mentors started working with students six weeks ago to design and build the robots, following strict specifications for materials and dimensions. For example, robots must be no more than 60 inches high by 60 inches wide and 60 inches long, or weigh more than 120 pounds, excluding the battery and removable bumpers.

The game, called Aim High, is played on a 54-foot-by-26-foot court. The robots must be highly maneuverable and be able to shoot balls through a vertical hoop 8½ feet off the floor or two ground-level hoops. To promote teamwork and cooperation, games are played between two "alliances" of three teams each, which means six robots are on the court for a game.

About 25 students from Hartford high schools helped build the robot, but only three students and a coach compete, standing behind a tall, clear shield at one end of the court to control the robot. At two minutes and 10 seconds, games are frenzied.

"It's crazy," said Jacob Komar, of Hartford's University High School of Science and Engineering, who controlled the robot's shooting mechanism. "It goes by in such a blur."

Team spirit and camaraderie run high. Bleachers flanking the court were packed to capacity Saturday with hundreds of team members, family and friends who cheered and chanted during the action-packed games.

Hartford's "Birds of Prey" team qualified for the elimination rounds and breezed through to the finals in an alliance with Hauppauge (N.Y.) High School and Hill Regional Career High School in New Haven.

In the best-of-three finals, the alliance lost two in a row to an alliance of Avon and South Windsor high schools, joined by a team from Suffield and Windsor Locks high schools.

But for Rodriguez, Hartford's Birds of Prey had already won its victory during the past six weeks as its members built their robot and, perhaps, their future.

"It's all right," Rodriguez said as he joined team members in the bleachers. "It's awesome. I'm still excited."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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