NCSSM Needs Partners for Robotics Competition

Several high school students visited Pratt Nov. 20, but not to get a campus tour. Instead, these students were looking for partners in a fast-paced robotics competition.

The North Carolina School for Science & Mathematics, located in Durham, is home to some of the brightest high school students in the state. And for the third year in a row, NCSSM is tackling the FIRST robotics challenge--an intense national competition in which students have to design and assemble a robot in six weeks, and then battle against teams from across the country. Teams battle for the glory and money of first place, but the real prize is the fun, excitement and learning that comes along the way.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) gives students a chance to experience science and technology development first hand, and to decide if a technical career is for them.

"This competition gives kids a chance to be a mechanical or electrical engineer for a couple of weeks," said Charles Buckner, senior mechanical design engineer for GlaxoSmithKline and industry mentor to the NCSSM students. "They also learn project management, business, and marketing skills."

It costs about $20,000 each year for a team to compete, which pays for entry fees, travel, materials shipping and the kit that includes a safety approved electrical system, motors and mechanical systems. This year's team is still raising funds, but they're already half way to their goal.

In mid-January, teams get a drawing of the game playing field and that's it. There are no additional instructions about how the game will be played. It's up to them to puzzle out how the game might be played, and to design their robot for an offensive, defensive or combination role in the game.

In a mere six weeks, teams have to work out who will do what, order the parts, assemble the robot (this is usually an iterative learning-intensive process) and hopefully get a couple of drivers some practice time. Then the robots are shipped to the competition site and there's naught to do but anxiously wait.

The first year the team competed, the team got their robot working the day before it had to be shipped off. "We realized that we'd spent way too much time in the beginning, and didn't plan well enough to get practice time driving the robot," said Jennifer Kirchner, then a senior at NCSSM. Kirchner is now at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and stays involved in FIRST as a mentor for students at NCSSM.

Students arrive at the competition site and have to literally search for their robot amongst hundreds of boxes and other teams. "It's utter chaos," said Buckner. "And once the competitions get going, the noise is unbelievable. Earplugs are not optional."

The competition changes every year, and can include activities like robo-basketball, or grabbing the most boxes and then stacking them for more points. Some teams try to win by preventing other robots from completing their missions, and others try to outperform.

"It's amazing how differently teams approach the same problem," said Buckner.

This year's team captain Amanda Bedsaul demonstrated last year's robot and control system to Pratt students and faculty, and coached anyone interested through a test drive.

The NCSSM hopes to get Pratt engineering students and faculty involved as mentors, and perhaps establish a long-term relationship that could lead to independent course credit for Duke students.

"We can never have enough mentors to help students along," said Buckner. "Ideally, we'd have a one to one ratio of students to mentors."

If you're interested in getting involved, please contact NCSSM physics teacher and FIRST mentor Angela Winborne at winborne@ncssm.edu or 919-416-2765. The team can use both mentors and funding.

For more information about the North Carolina School for Science and Mathematics visit http://www.ncssm.edu/. Visit the First Web site at http://www.usfirst.org/ to learn more about this exciting educational competition for high school students.