By Rob McIlvaineMarch 9, 2012
BALTIMORE, Md. (Army News Service, March 9, 2012) -- High school students from 11 states --- as far away as California -- came to compete their robots against each other at the Chesapeake Regional FIRST Robotics Competition.
FIRST stands for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology and it's a national organization that encourages students to take part in the ever-changing environment of STEM: the promotion of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Jill Smith, director of the U.S. Army Communications - Electronics, Research, Development and Engineering Command, or CERDEC at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., wants her command to become more engaged in promoting this national priority.
CERDEC MOLDING FUTURE FORCE
"STEM is more important than ever because so many things are driven by science and math," she said. "We feel that if you engage students at a young age it will motivate them to continue on in these fields. We want to combat any misconception about who can be an engineer.
"In some cases, kids are placed in a discipline and told that's what they're good at, when they might have the innovative and problem-solving skills to succeed as an engineer or scientist. We're helping them to realize their potential and options.
"By dedicating our time to work directly with students and teachers through these programs, we help build the future science and engineering workforce of this country. We have the resources and expertise to open opportunities for local students in STEM, and because of that, it's our responsibility to do so," said Smith.
The theme for this year's competition was "Rebound Rumble," a robotics basketball game. The winning team will advance to compete in the FIRST championship at St. Louis, Mo.
Even though The Brigade, one of the Army-sponsored teams, didn't fare well in their first of nine robotic basketball games, their intuitiveness and enthusiasm didn't diminish.
TALE OF TWO TEAMS
The Brigade, sponsored by CERDEC, is one of two teams in this region being sponsored by the Army. Mentors from the Army Research Laboratory worked with Team 3941, also known as "Absolute Zero Electricity."
ARL and CERDEC are sister centers of the U.S. Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Though this is the first time either organization has sponsored a team, both are heavily involved in developing and supporting programs that promote STEM education in the community.
"We started off on the floor with a communications problem," said Joe Ryan, an Army mentor for the team, and chief of CERDEC's Quick Reaction and Battle Command Support Division. "Once they got that fixed, a ball got stuck under the robot and that hindered them for the rest of the time.
"But they have six more chances today and then tomorrow they have two chances and that's the seating round for when they go into the tournament.
"I'm sure they're back there right now trying to tweek it up and get it ready for the next one.
"They are an energetic group with lots of enthusiasm in wanting to compete ... a real sense of competition there," Ryan said.
In their minds, varsity basketball probably came in second to this "sport of the mind" as highly energized and resourceful high school students converged at the Baltimore Convention Center, March 9 and 10.
Otherwise known as "Rebound Rumble," 63 teams of students, along with their technical mentors, demonstrated their skills in STEM.
This year's Rebound Rumble was a 3-on-3 robotics basketball game played between two alliances of three teams each. Each alliance tried to shoot as many basketballs in the hoops as possible during the two-minute and 15-second match. Balls scored in higher hoops scored teams more points. Team alliances were awarded bonus points if their robots were balanced on bridges at the end of the match.
But the teams were competing for something else.
"We're really competing for bragging rights," said one of the students on "The Brigade," known officially as Team 1980, from Aberdeen High School in Maryland, as he was bent over to apply last-minute touches to their robot named Beretta.
"But this isn't all just work; we have fun, too," said Chris Flake who smiled broadly as he feverishly tried to fix the basketball conveyor mechanism as the minutes ticked down to the 10:12 deadline of their first competition of the day.
Their team, consisting mostly of students enrolled at the Math and Science Academy at Aberdeen High and numbering 36, had been working on this project for six weeks.
But only 18 members were at the morning session -- man hours had to be spread out over the seven competitions on Friday and two on Saturday.
Mark Evans of the Brigade team said the program at their high school started eight years ago because of efforts by the Army.
"The Math and Science Academy at our school started before STEM was even a buzzword. In fact, the Army alliance was a big impetus for proposing the academy to the school system," Evans said.
TEST DRIVING A CAREER
"When you're in high school and trying to figure out what you want to do in college and for the rest of your life," said Mike Reis, a mechanical engineer at CERDEC and also one of the mentors, "programs like this give you the opportunity to test drive certain careers, test drive certain fields.
"These kids had an interest in engineering and this robotics program gives them a taste of what engineering in the real world is, and they got to see what we did in our building at the Fabrication Lab, so they got to see what real engineers do," Reis said.
The program, he said, is about as close as students can get to real engineering problems, challenges and solutions in high school.
"The Army wants future engineers, they want scientists, so why not start young? Get them interested, get them involved early, keep an eye on them and when they get out of college, they know the Army sponsored them and they'll look to us first."
The Army and military are always on the cutting front of technology and science, Reis said, so getting students into a government science technology field betters the country and betters the military.
MENTORING OVER FABRICATING
"Besides fabricating and bringing things to our shops, we also sat down and looked at their designs and went over it with them, talking about why they chose certain things, why they were going in certain directions and they asked us for our professional opinions and we provided insight that they haven't quite gotten, yet -- they're still in high school. So we pointed out things we thought could be improved. More time was spent mentoring than actually fabricating," Reis said.
Reis said they spent every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for six weeks with the students, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. "They'd show up and we made the time to sit there and assist them as needed, or walk around and offer our assistance wherever we could."
As one of the 10 organizations that make up the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, CERDEC is a subordinate organization of the Army Materiel Command -- the leading supplier of advanced Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, or C4ISR capabilities, technologies and integrated solutions for the Warfighter.
Founded by inventor Dean Kamen in 1989, FIRST was created to inspire an appreciation of science and technology in young people, their schools, and their communities.
Now in its 21st season, the FIRST Robotics Competition anticipated close to 2,343 teams from 49 states in the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Dominican Republic, Germany, Israel, Mexico, Taiwan, Turkey and the United Kingdom to compete in 52 regional competitions. More than 1,200 students will compete at the Chesapeake Regional to earn a spot at the FIRST Championship to be held April 25 to 28 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Mo.
"At CERDEC," said Smith, "we research and develop cutting-edge technologies to support our Soldiers. But one of the most important things we can develop is the next generation of cutting-edge minds. The scientists and engineers here take this obligation seriously and they don't hesitate to sit down and share knowledge with what they see as their next generation. We're doing our best to help shape our future leaders in these fields."
For more information, visit www.usfirst.org.