Hampton Roads teenagers from Norfolk to the Eastern Shore have only a few weeks left to perfect their entry for a regional robot competition next month in Richmond. They’re designing and building machines that will compete in one of the world’s biggest engineering challenges… the FIRST Robotics competition. More than 1,800 teams across the world are working to reach the annual championship event held each April at the Georgia Dome.

In January, teams were given a kit of parts, made up of motors, batteries, a control system and a mix of automation pieces — but no blueprints. Working with mentors, students are given six weeks to build, program and test robots that will compete in regional tournaments this winter.

Virginia’s regional competition is at VCU’s Siegel Center the weekend of March 19-20, but teams have to have their robots completed and shipped by Feb. 23.

The quick turn around is indicative of a real-world situation, said Joanne Talmage, a Robotics, Electronics and Fiber Optics instructor at New Horizons Regional Education Center in Hampton and team leader of the New Horizons NASA Knights.

“Students are given a task with limited resources and not enough time — it’s very much like a real-world engineering problem,” Talmage said. “What’s great is that students get to work with professional mentors within the industry and they get to work with and learn about the most up-to-date technology.”

The NASA Knights team has participated in the competition — often described as “varsity sports of the mind” — for the past 13 years.

Talmage said her team has been working tirelessly since January, even putting in time on the weekends, to get its robot ready in time. The Knights are known for their dedication and have made it to nationals every year since 1998.

Businesses around Hampton Roads sponsor and mentor the teams, which have grown from three to 12 teams in the area. The NASA Knights are the second oldest team in Virginia, and got started with the help of NASA’s Langley Research Center in 1997. Though funding is important for area teams, NASA Langley employee and long-time FIRST Robotics supporter Jeff Seaton said what cannot be quantified is the experience students receive while working side-by-side with a NASA engineer or industry professional.

“For NASA Langley, this is one of the ways we can encourage students to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math),” said Seaton. “Companies and the community are seeing the need and value of this kind of motivation for our students.”

Since 1992 FIRST Robotics has encouraged high school students to use their engineering and psychological skills to tackle a robotic challenge that is presented in the form of a game. This year’s is called “Breakaway.”

In the First Robotics “Breakaway” game, two alliances of three teams will compete on a 27-by-54-foot field with bumps, attempting to earn points by collecting soccer balls in goals. Additional bonus points will be earned for each robot suspended in air and not touching the field at the end of the match.

For more information on the NASA’s Robotics Alliance Project visit: http://robotics.nasa.gov/

For a complete a list of FIRST Robotics regional events, corporate sponsors and other details, visit:


For more information about the NASA Knights visit: www.team122.org