Kids meet tech in robotics competition in Lewiston

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LEWISTON — Stepping into the Androscoggin Bank Colisee on Saturday was like walking into a professional wrestling match competing for attention with bands simultaneously playing catchy Zumba tunes at maximum volume.

It was easy to get lost in the noise mind-meld and visually chaotic costuming frenzy of a few thousand spirited high school students and adults from New England, Pennsylvania and Canada participating in the Pine Tree Regional semifinals and finals of the 2013 FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition.

Unless you were a robot and its handlers. Then you were intensely focused on the Ultimate Ascent mission: that of two competing alliances composed of three teams each.

Teams averaged 25 students and five to 15 adults each, of which a core group of handlers guided six platform-type robots each to either defensively block robot opponents from gaining shooting positions or disk-refilling stations, or flinging disks for maximum points. Matches lasted two minutes and 15 seconds and were played on a flat, 27- by 54-foot field.

Matches ended with robots attempting to climb metal-pole pyramids near the end of the field or to hook on to lift the robot off the floor for points. Each team had to win two of three matches to advance.

During one break early into the semifinals, Winstead, Conn., students garbed in black and wearing black helmets with silver gear halves mounted mohawk-style, rolled their No. 4055 robot toward the playing field while rocking out to Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell.” They were followed by Team 157 from Marlborough, Mass.

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Teams placed their 100- to 120-pound robots into prime shooting position under or beside the pyramids, then Emcee Eric Eckhardt of Boston boldly introduced each team.

On seeing members of OZ-RAM Team 1922 from Contoocook and Weare, N.H., who were dressed as “Wizard of Oz” characters, he shouted into his headset microphone, “This isn’t the Yellow Brick Road! This is serious business!”

Six of the top finishers of 38 teams — 14 of which are from Maine — will head for the World competition in St. Louis at month’s end.

“This is like the NASCAR of robotics,” said Steve Cremer of Foxborough, Mass., FIRST‘s regional director.

Cremer, a retired physics teacher, said each team raises $5,000 to register and get a kit of parts worth $20,000 with which to build a robot.

“Each team is a business and the robots and kids are its capital,” he said.

But it’s not about the robots, said Dana Henry, a FIRST senior mentor, also of Massachusetts.

“This is where we train the next generation of scientists and engineers,” Henry said. “We’re in the business of creating students, not robots.”

Skills they learn from the competition will help them in their professional careers, Cremer said.

Adam Gettle, a junior at Spruce Mountain High School in Jay/Livermore Falls, agreed. He said his team finished in seventh place Saturday. But there was still hope of going to the Worlds, depending on which awards they won.

They built their robot in six weeks for $1,000 and were mentored by six-year Team 2648 of Oakland.

“It’s challenging, but it’s all about the learning experience,” said Gettle, who wants to major in mechanical engineering in college. “As a small school of 250 students, I never thought we’d be here at the Pine Tree Regionals.”

Henry, who Cremer said develops spacesuits for a living, likened the competition intensity to that of collegiate basketball tournaments.

“It’s our own March Madness,” Henry said.

He said FIRST Robotics is the only high school program in which every high school student that participates can go pro.

“This is where we create jobs that don’t even exist yet, because this is where we introduce the kids to the technology,” Henry said.

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