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FIRST student contest has taken a strong hold in Alamo City
January 17, 2011














PHOTO: The drive team for the Toltechs robot, built by a San Antonio Edgewood Independent School District team, waits for its match in a FIRST competition held in 2008 in New Orleans. That team won the engineering inspiration award.

By David Hendricks, San Antonio Express-News

Robots still seem to be a futuristic dream to most of us.

Robots don't cut our lawns, fix our dinners or drive our cars for us. Robots have become a large part of lives, however, behind the scenes. They help make many of the things we use. Most assembly line work has been taken over by robots.

Robots also can be effective educational tools, teaching students about science and engineering. The inventor of the Segway, Dean Kamen, pounced on that idea two decades ago. Kamen started an educational competition called FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The competitions are now held in cities all over the world, including San Antonio.

That should be "especially" San Antonio. The competition under way here this winter is so broad and intense, only New York City's FIRST competitions are larger. Part of the reason for the San Antonio competition's size is that it holds competitions in two categories together instead of separately.

Sixty-four teams have organized to compete March 3-5 at the Convention Center for robots up to 120 pounds
Another 48 teams will compete in the category of robots up to 30 pounds.

The winners in each category here will advance to the world championships held in St. Louis April 27-30

Another FIRST competition for elementary and middle school students, using Lego robots, occurs separately. San Antonio Lego teams are competing in Austin this weekend.

The local competitions are organized by the Texas Institute for Educational Robotics, or TIER, at Northwest Vista College, along with the newly formed FIRST regional board, headed by Patrick Felty. TIER, founded in March 2008, is headed by Director Andrew Schuetze.

Last week, the teams, almost all from area high schools, gathered to learn the games their robots must play in the March competition.

The large robots must be able to pick up inner tubes shaped in circles, squares and triangles and place them on various pegs. The small-robot game involves picking up six-inch pipes and moving them over barriers, like ramps and cliffs.

The teams have until mid-February to complete and prepare their robots, Schuetze said.
Registration costs, up to thousands of dollars for teams and hundreds of dollars more for robot kits, must be paid. That's where the private sector comes in.

Kamen wanted it that way, Schuetze explained, so that engineers and scientists from companies would foot the bills and coach the teams. Supporters include Time Warner Cable, J.C. Penney and the Texas Workforce Commission.

The robotics competition in San Antonio really took off in 2009 when Kamen visited San Antonio to receive a BioMed SA award. BioMed SA has since been deeply involved, said Ann Stevens, BioMed SA president.

"This is about exposing children to science and technology and having fun to solve real world problems," Stevens said. "This helps develop the work force of the future."

A Brandeis University study already has confirmed the value of FIRST. Competitors are more than twice as likely to pursue a career in science and technology and nearly four times as likely to pursue a career in engineering.

When the robots face off in battle in March, the real winner may be San Antonio's business future.


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