Local teams compete at regional robotics event

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Region - posted Tue., Apr. 5, 2011
Aluminati team members (l-r) Avery Fried, Lee Combs, Tyler Jacobsen and Thomas Cloninger. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Aluminati team members (l-r) Avery Fried, Lee Combs, Tyler Jacobsen and Thomas Cloninger. Photos by Melanie Savage.

The Northeast Utilities FIRST Connecticut Regional robotics competition at the Connecticut Convention Center was a far cry from your average local science fair.

Held April 1 and 2 in Hartford, the event had the feel of a television game show, with professional lighting, a large, enthusiastic audience, and an announcer describing the action. Dubbed “the varsity sport for the mind,” FIRST “combines the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology,” according to the website usfirst.org. FIRST is an acronym of “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”

The event featured 58 high school teams from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and one team from the South American nation of Brazil. The teams operated their remote-controlled robots in an arena competition that also recognized design excellence, safety, creativity and sportsmanship. Locally, teams competed from Colchester, Enfield and Storrs. The teams receive their materials and their mission in January, and have a total of six weeks to prepare for the competition.

“The mission changes every year,” said Jessica Hyde, an E.O. Smith sophomore from Ashford who captained the Windham-area “Aluminati” team.

This year’s task involved piloting a large, remote-controlled robot to place inflatable inner-tubes on a series of pegs. For extra points, teams could navigate a mini-bot up a pole. “We ended up giving our mini-bot to another team,” said Hyde. “It’s part of the gracious professionalism that’s part of the competition.” Hyde said that teams are encouraged to collaborate with, as well as compete against, each other.

Students learn a variety of other skills as a result of participation in the competition. More obvious are opportunities to practice computer-programming and mechanical and electrical engineering. “But it provides kids with a chance to exercise a lot of other skills,” said Hyde. “We also need artists, public relations people, website designers, entrepreneurs.” Facing a $6,000 bill for the entry fee alone, the team requires fund-raising and money-handling skills.

“They have to learn how to balance the resources,” said Bob Erickson, an engineer with Pratt and Whitney who was one of five adult mentors working with the Storrs team. There were 18 students total representing Aluminati, drawn from both E.O. Smith and Windham Tech. “We’re a rookie team this year,” said Ellerie Farrick, an E.O. Smith freshman from Willington. E.O. Smith used to have its own robotics team that disbanded due to budget issues. “We’re hoping to make this a community team,” said Farrick. “We’re hoping to make it available to anybody in the area who is interested.”

For their rookie year in the competition, the Windham team put in a respectable appearance. “Right now everybody is so excited,” said Hyde near the end of the qualifying rounds. “We’re beating some of the veteran teams.”

“You’ve worked so hard,” added Farrick. “It’s great to be getting this much out of it.”

A contrast to the fledgling Aluminati team was the “Buzz” team from Enfield. Drawing students form both Enrico Fermi and Enfield high schools, the team was competing for the 16th year at the regionals. The team has an equal number of students and adult mentors, at 22 each, and had already competed at a regional competition in New Hampshire this year. “We won in New Hampshire, which qualifies us to go to nationals,” said Matt Reis, a junior from Fermi. But even if they hadn’t won, a Chairman’s Award nabbed in 2005 gives them an automatic ticket to the national competition every year.

Reis said that the team begins its season in September, by bringing in new freshman members. Preseason competitions help to prepare for the larger events. There are also a number of fund-raising activities, which this year included cleaning Rentschler Field, a pasta supper, car washes, and a “10 percent” night at a local 99 Restaurant.

After the national competition in St. Louis at the end of April, the team plans to participate in a number of post-season events. They have put a lot of time and effort into their robot, and would like to get the most they can out of it. “During the six weeks leading up to this, we worked on this every day,” said Reis. The team works for at least three hours on weekday evenings, eight hours on Saturdays, and five hours on Sundays during the busy part of the season.

This year, the Enfield team picked up the “Innovation in Control Award” and made it to the final round at the Hartford competition.

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