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The Village Robot

April 09, 2002

Sometimes it takes a village to build a robot. Last weekend a bunch of the radio-controlled contraptions, built by ad hoc villages of students, engineers, teachers, parents, siblings and hangers-on from across California, Arizona, Washington and Hawaii, gathered to compete in a regional contest that fused soccer and basketball with high-tech bumper cars. Here was the scene at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena on Saturday:

Robots of every description, each topped with a flashing red or blue light, careered about on a basketball court-size playing area. Rock and rap boomed, and an emcee with skunk-striped blue hair rampaged across the floor whipping teams of joystick-wielding high schoolers and their pompom-waving supporters into frenzies. Bubbles and candy flew through the bleachers. Orange and green soccer balls arced over the court. Stadium-size video screens zoomed in on the action.

The rules for building the robots and for the contest are complicated, and to describe them would be to detract from the praise due the competitors. Instead, take a look in the pit area, where revved-up students and grown men and women following their tinkerer's bliss frantically welded and hacksawed and fine-tuned machines built from uniform kits provided to each team. Subtle flirting mixed with overt ingenuity. Tough competitors cooperated, swapping parts and brainstorms. Some of the machines seemed as if they were ready to waltz across Mars--NASA and JPL co-sponsored the event. Others looked like the tragic results of junkyard explosions.

The contest is called the FIRST Robotics Competition. It was launched in 1989 by New Hampshire inventor Dean Kamen (best known lately for his adult scooter, the Segway Human Transporter) to teach kids that engineering and technology can be as cool as celebrity and sports. (Though in all honesty, the FIRST acronym--For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology--could use some work.) With the help of dozens of corporate sponsors, including TRW, Boeing, Ford and Rocketdyne, teams from 60 schools both public and private competed. From Los Angeles, that included Dorsey, Lincoln and King/Drew Medical Magnet high schools, as well as Campbell Hall and the Archer School for Girls. The teams worked six weeks, pulling all-nighters in company shops or parents' garages, to complete their designs.

Congratulations to the regional winners, including Chatsworth High, which will go on to the FIRST finals in Orlando, Fla. Congratulations too to everyone who saw the importance of participating in an event that, besides being what looked like a pure blast, may also turn some lives around. When a village builds a robot, better humans sometimes result.

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