March Mathness Returns! Competitive Robotics Still A Sleeping Giant


There used to be the great divide; those who loved sports and those who loved science, and rarely the two crossed paths. However today, with the advent of advanced analytics in sport, VR and AR, gaming and esports, even robotics, the worlds of what we thought were “sport” and how the two intersect today have be never been closer.

One area that we are watching with great anticipation is competitive robotics. Now we are not really talking about Battlebots, which has made its mark on TV, although it certainly doesn’t hurt. We are talking about the competitions that have arisen in high schools and middle schools around the country which combine teambuilding and competition with every area of science.

This year’s National Robotics Kickoff was again in early January in high schools around the country, as teams were given their assignment to build not just the device, but the narrative around the project, all leading to a world championship head to head competition later this spring. No different than say, the NCAA basketball championship or even the NFL Playoffs.

The regional competitions are everything you would expect from a school vs school, team vs team matchup.

There will be painted faces and cheerleaders, cowbells and mascots, rival fans chanting at each other, ear splitting techno music, a roaring emcee, referees in the requisite striped shirts and lots and lots of competitive tension. They have names like the RoboWarriors and the Miracle Workers, LuNaTecs and Pi-oneers. There will be faces painted and logo’ed flags to rival any traditional sporting contest. The field of play even resembles a hockey rink, complete with boards and plexiglass.

Teams as large as 100 students or more work on various aspects of the presentation, from video and animation to programming and design, each helping to task and tell the story around the assigned robotic project.

The original program is entitled FIRST, standing for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology and was the brainchild of Segway PT inventor Dean Kamen over 25 years ago with the goal of boosting science in the way that high school’s glorify sports.

The competition is not your father’s Erector Set version of building a robot. Each team trains for weeks many using the designated program to have its robot perform a series of complex tasks against another table of robots, with  competition set up in teams of three.

However what is more amazing is the sense of fun, competition and creativity that each of the teams have throughout the event. From posters to mascots to elongated signs, the students and their supporters cheer with a fervor that would match any athletic event. Everyone who goes sees the best of what robotics has to offer…healthy competition with a mosaic of children from every ethnic and social background in a healthy competition devoid of many of the trappings that childhood events have these days. There may be some uber parents in the crowd, but most were there for good natured support both moral and emotional.

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