HANCOCK COUNTY, Miss.  – Three robotics teams from Mississippi high schools traveled to Houston, Texas, last week for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Lone Star regional competition. Forty teams from the United States, Ecuador and Brazil participated in the three-day competition.

Teams from Gulfport High School in Gulfport, Warren Central High School in Vicksburg and a combined team of students from Picayune Memorial High School in Picayune and Pearl River Central High School in Carriere traveled to the Lone Star state with help from NASA Stennis Space Center (SSC) and other local sponsors. 

Each year FIRST presents a game problem and identical parts to each team. Team members spend six weeks working with teachers, engineers and other mentors to build a robot capable of performing tasks for the competition.

The combined team of students from Pearl River County schools made it to the quarterfinal rounds of competition, while Gulfport’s Team Fusion advanced to the semifinals and the Warren Central Vikings battled their way to the finals, winning the competition’s runner-up medal.

Besides being successful on the playing field, the Mississippi teams won awards in other areas. The Gulfport team received a safety award; the Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Beyers Entrepreneurship award for their fund-raising efforts; and the Autodesk Visualization award for a computer animation they designed for the competition. The Warren Central team took home the Xerox Creativity award for creative robot design.

FIRST was founded so that students would have the opportunity to work with engineers and learn what it is like to solve problems in the real world. Each year SSC employees work with students to help build robots and, more importantly, teach them about gracious professionalism, which is the central theme of the FIRST program.

According to NASA’s Scott Olive, a mentor for the Pearl River/Picayune team, “FIRST opens doors for a lot of students who would not have the chance to be exposed to these kinds of things otherwise. FIRST gives students a chance to think about their futures and set higher goals for themselves,” said Olive. 

For NASA’s Jim Cluff, who is a mentor for Gulfport’s Team Fusion, the students are what keep him interested. “I love seeing how excited they get about robotics,” Cluff said. “Building robots is the future for NASA, and these students are learning those skills now.”

Mentors from all of the Mississippi teams say that many students are turned on to engineering after participating in FIRST and often go on to study engineering in college. Gulfport High School junior Lisa Palchek says she wanted to become part of the FIRST team because she knew it would give her the chance to work with the professionals that serve as team mentors. “I know that if I need help with anything, whether it’s a math assignment or job references in the future, I can go to these mentors for help,” said Palchek, who plans to study industrial engineering in college.

FIRST also benefits students interested in other areas of study. FIRST teams are run like a business, with some students concentrating on engineering while others work on areas such as budget, fund raising, public relations and graphic design.  Although Pearl River Central senior Alex Craig enjoys building things and working on the team robot, he plans to study theater and film in college. Craig said that his experience as the team’s public speaker relates to his experiences on the stage and will help him in the future.

FIRST students, teachers and mentors frequently give up personal time to prepare for the competition. Gulfport High School senior team members all skipped prom to compete, and SSC Mississippi Space Services engineer and Pearl River/Picayune mentor Allen Forsman spent many hours on nights and weekends working on the robot’s drive system

For most Mississippi students the FIRST season is over, but for others it’s getting more intense. The Gulfport team will soon travel to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga., for the FIRST championship event. And students from Provine High School in Jackson, who participated in a FIRST regional in Duluth, Ga., earlier this year, will also participate in the championship competition April 21-23.

For more information about FIRST Robotics, contact Katie Veal Wallace at (228) 688-7744.