Robotics Competitions: Sports without Athletics

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CSM Hosts BAE Systems Maryland FIRST Tech Challenge Feb. 21

The way Courtney Rice explains it, robotics challenges are like sports clubs without the athletics: it involves teamwork, competition and a playing field. Rice, a senior at Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center and at Leonardtown High School, is competitive and dedicated. Along with fellow senior and robotics engineer Alex Yuen, they are part of ‘The Transformers’ team that works before school, during school and sometimes late into the night to perfect the design and programming of their robots. Their goal is to be ready to compete against teams from 39 other schools in the BAE Systems Maryland FIRST Tech Challenge at the College of Southern Maryland on Feb. 21.

“I was up until midnight working on our robot,” said Rice. “Sometimes I’m up until 3 a.m.” she added.

Yuen is also passionate about the robotics challenges, “I have been working for two weeks to program the arm to move a certain way,” said Yuen, who was chosen by his peers to be their team leader.

Rice and Yuen are similar to a growing number of high school students who are drawn to the thrill of competing for technology’s top honors. The FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), founded by Dean Kamen, entrepreneur and inventor of the Segway, is a national program created to inspire young people and to help them discover the excitement and rewards of science and technology. The program has done just that.

Locally, CSM has been bringing robotics competitions to Southern Maryland’s students since 2006.  “The ultimate goal of the FTC program is to get students excited about science, technology and engineering by providing a sports-like venue where the lessons they learned in school can be applied to the robots they are building,” said CSM Professor Jeff Tjiputra who is also chair of CSM’s Business and Technology Division.

In this second annual FTC, CSM is partnering with BAE Systems to bring 40 teams from Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania and New York to compete at its La Plata Campus on Feb. 21.

Tjiputra created a separate CSM robotics competition just for Southern Maryland students in grades 5 through 12 with fun, age-appropriate fields of play and LEGO and VEX robotics kits that are affordable—allowing more schools and students to participate.  That competition will be held March 7.

“We are thrilled to have BAE Systems as a sponsor for both of our competitions,” said Tjiputra. “Involvement from the business community is essential—support from a high-tech powerhouse like BAE is incredible,” Tjiputra added.

Nationally during the 2009 season, BAE Systems is sponsoring more than 145 of the 1,686 competing FIRST teams, providing direct support to 106 teams in 19 states and D.C., and sponsoring 13 of the 40 regional FIRST competitions including CSM’s. BAE Systems believes that robotics competitions are wonderful opportunities for young people to get excited about science, technology, and engineering, according to President and CEO of BAE Systems, Inc. Walt Havenstein.

“FIRST is a competition for America’s future engineers and innovators, and I tell them that this is the only high school sport where every participant can ‘go professional’,” Havenstein said.

This year’s FTC competition uses a new robotics kit, TETRIX that allows teams to be creative in their designs while maintaining features that are common in high-end robotics systems. Teams began receiving their kits in November and have been able to enhance their designs with additional FIRST parts that can be ordered at official sites. “There is no price limit to what a team can spend on their robot,” said Yuen, but the parts are pricey, Rice added. As with school sports, robotics teams hold fund-raisers and seek sponsors to help with costs. Learning to budget and manage money is a component that organizers have built into the program, Tjiputra said. 

The FTC field of play is a 12-by-12-foot arena. This year’s game is called Face-Off and is designed to provide challenges that mirror real robotics challenges that exist within the industry. Robots must be designed to move over rough, slippery terrain, navigate off and on a ramp and manipulate objects—in this case 70 hockey pucks. Competitors program their robots to scoop and drop, and knock pucks into scoring areas in a timed period.  

Teams at the Maryland FTC tournament will compete for the chance to qualify for the FIRST World Championship to be held April 15-17 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.  Two top performers from the Maryland FTC tournament will receive automatic bids to represent Maryland at the FIRST World Championship.

For Rice and Yuen, the competitions are not only challenging and fun, but also a means to an end. Rice, who has participated in robotics competitions for the last three years, plans to pursue dietetics or environmental science, with the ambition to study at Virginia Tech. Yuen, a four-year robotics veteran, has applied to the engineering program at the University of Maryland College Park and is looking at taking advantage of its co-op program with Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

The BAE Systems Maryland FIRST Tech Challenge is from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Feb. 21 at CSM’s La Plata Campus, 8730 Mitchell Road, La Plata. Snow date is Feb. 22.

The CSM Robotics Challenge for Southern Maryland robotics teams is 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., March 7 at CSM’s La Plata Campus, 8730 Mitchell Road, La Plata. This challenge has 32 Southern Maryland middle school teams playing ‘Power Puzzle’ and 35 high school teams playing ‘Elevation’ in competition.

For information on either competition, contact Tjiputra at 301-934-7556, e-mail JeffT@csmd.edu or visit www.csmd.edu/roboticschallenge/. Both competitions are free and open to the public.

BAE Systems is a high tech company which employs approximately 100,000 employees in the United States, the United Kingdom and around the world—all dedicated to meeting our customers’ national security requirements with highly innovative and leading edge solutions that span the defense, aerospace, intelligence, information technology and technical services arenas. For information on BAE Systems visit www.baesystems.com.

A regionally accredited community college that provides programs and services with a special focus on local workforce development to maintain and grow a healthy economy and community, CSM is a silver level recipient of the 2008 Maryland Performance Excellence Award. Founded in 1958, CSM is the fifth largest community college in Maryland with campuses in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties. For information, call 301-934-7765, 301-870-2309, 240-725-5499 or 443-550-6199, Ext. 7765 or visit www.csmd.edu.

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