Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Robotics Competition Even the Tech-Deficient Can Enjoy

Over the weekend, our family enjoyed what has become a House Full of Nerds tradition: attending the regional FIRST Robotics competition.  The two tech-savvy family members, the Nerd in Chief and our younger daughter, began this tradition four years ago, when our older daughter and I were attending an all-day Girl Scouts event.  Even though Hannah's and my nerdiness does not extend to robotics, we found plenty to like about the competition when we all attended the following year, and our family hasn't missed since.

The competition is for high school students; teams are usually formed by schools but sometimes by 4-H or other groups, including homeschoolers. Six weeks before the competition, the task is announced, and each team receives a "Kick-off Kit" of parts; with the help of mentors and sponsors, they design, build, and program a robot.  This year's task, "Rebound Rumble," involved scoring baskets with foam basketballs for 1, 2, or 3 points based on the height of the goal. 
The Bomb Squad robot had a great scooping mechanism which allowed it to shoot baskets almost continually. 
 This is a lot more exciting than it sounds, since groups of three teams form alliances, allowing one member of each alliance to play defense if desired.  One of the robots had a clever scissors lift that could load three balls, then extend to pour them into the highest net, but a bump from an opposing bot was enough to knock it out of scoring position.  Adding to the challenge was a speed bump-type barricade mid-court, punctuated by three ramps that can tip in either direction.  During the final 20 seconds of a match, robots can balance on their alliance's ramp for 10 points apiece. 

So why does a tech-impaired nerd like me enjoy going to a robotics competition?  While the competition itself is quite exciting, I enjoy touring the pit areas during the prelims and seeing the bots up close and personal.  Sure, I can usually only nod my head and hope I don't look too clueless while the kids explain the details of their design, but it's fun seeing how each team approached the task's challenges, especially when you hear it from a high school student, enthusiastic despite his or her lack of sleep for the past six weeks.  Smaller school districts often opt to specialize in one or two aspects of the challenge (defense and balancing, for example) in hopes of being asked to ally with teams from larger schools. 

Two of the values FIRST Robotics emphasize are "Gracious Professionalism" and "Coopertition."  While touring the pits, it's common to see teams offering spare parts to anyone who needs them, and sharing one's technical expertise with newer teams is strongly encouraged; however, it's clear that everyone is out to win - this isn't pony soccer where everyone goes home with a trophy.  No one boos or trash-talks, but cheering is loud and enthusiastic.

Success!  Team Titanium (darker green shirts), Bomb Squad, and Bit By Bit 4H (light green) celebrate another successful round.  They would go on to win the competition.
Collecting buttons is always fun...
The Kuh-nig-its (Team 1939) have our favorite mascot - the Killer Rabbit from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
The music played between rounds was nice mix of 70s and 80s classics and stuff my kids like.  I can't remember what was playing when the "mosh pit" above morphed into a conga line...

But for me, the best part is being in an Arena Full of Nerds and watching kids who would have been marginalized when I was in high school compete and have fun where it's cool to be smart.


  1. A riot, by the looks of it. I've seen clips of a similar robotics competition, very interesting. I wouldn't mind watching live (I know, I'm probably setting off the nerd alarm!).

    By the way, love your blog title!

    1. Thanks! When my daughters began proudly self-identifying as nerds, I knew I'd done something right ;-)

  2. Don't worry, gingercat and I still love you, even if you are not a techie ;-)

  3. I've never been to one, but I have seen robotics and rocket competitions on TV and marvel at what some of these folks can do.

  4. "I'm making science." Oooh, I love that button! ;-) P.S. Alan Alda needs some 11 year olds to judge essays by scientists! Check out Very fun read - thanks!

    1. Thanks! The Flame Challenge looks like a great idea - I'll have to show gingercat. She's lucky to have a Girl Scout leader who is big on science, engineering, math, and tech. My older daughter is stuck with me as a GS leader but has a great science teacher this year :-)

  5. Go nerds! Keep up the geekdom!