As the buzzer sounds, the robots sprint toward the center of the arena.
Using metallic “arms” and other clever gadgets not seen on humans, the
remotely controlled machines manage to grab a giant beach ball and attempt
to dunk it into an oversized basket.

The crowd goes wild at every move as the machines try to score as many
points as they can, pulling no punches.

Complete with referees, time clocks, loud music and cheerleaders, the game
has the flavor of a futuristic fight, the pulse of a rock and roll concert
and the excitement of an NBA playoff game. Everyone comes out a winner.

Welcome to a robotics competition organized by First, a non-profit
organization that fosters interest in math, science and technology. The
group’s name, “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,”
is a message taken seriously by the thousands of high school students whose
lives have been changed by these machines.

With sponsorship provided by JPL and other NASA centers around the country,
students have six weeks to design and build a robot under the tutorship of
engineers and scientists. How well they do depends on the soundness of their

The next chance these teenagers will have to show off their robots is a
scrimmage set for Wednesday, Nov. 7, at JPL. The regional competition will
take place at the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena on April 4, 2002. Registration
for the regional competition is open through December 7.

While the rules and specifications of the robots change every year, the
memories and lessons learned remain the same year after year. Just ask any
of the students involved in past competitions.

Lauren Lyons, who was team captain while attending Archer School for Girls
in Los Angeles, credits the experience with changing her forever.

“The robotics competition has changed my life like nothing else in this
world has,” said Lyons, who in 2000 and 2001 led her team all the way to the
national tournament in Florida. “Two years ago I wanted to go into business,
I wanted to do simply what I knew would make me rich.”

Now a freshman at Princeton University, she is majoring in mechanical
engineering and plans to become an astronaut, a goal inspired by a field
trip to Kennedy Space Center following the national tournament in Orlando,

“Building a robot is so much fun, even if you don’t want to become an
engineer you should try and join a team. You learn so much about life and
working with people,” she said from her dorm at Princeton after a tough
physics midterm. “Worst comes to worst, you’ll end up with really marketable
skills, like you’ll know how to hook up a pneumatic network or how a
speed-controller works.”

Participating in the program not only made her appreciate math and science,
but also made her actually enjoy them, she said in astonishment.

“Three engineers from JPL helped us and they were wonderful,” she said.
“They gave us the analytical tools and so much guidance, something physics
books couldn’t give us.”

For her part, in the next few months Lyons will be volunteering her time and
expertise to the Trenton High School team in New Jersey.

“First provides kids with an intellectual sanctuary, a place where they can
work hard and play hard,” Lyons said.

Last year JPL sponsored 24 teams, providing mentor engineers to school and
volunteers to staff the regional competition. Altogether, last year NASA
sponsored more than 100 teams.

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