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At FIRST, it's all about learning and helping each other

Sunday News Correspondent

March 08. 2014 9:01PM
Austin Snell, a sophomore at Campbell High School in Litchfield, makes some final adjustments before his team enters its robot in a FIRST Robotics Competition at the University of New Hampshire on Friday. (JASON SCHREIBER/union Leader Correspondent)

DURHAM - Anything can happen when you build a robot that's supposed to score a ball in a goal.

A rookie team from Fall Mountain Regional High School in Landgon found that out on the second day of the District FIRST Robotics Competition.

"In one match, a wire actually came out of the battery, so we stopped in the middle of the entire game," said junior Kristina Judkins, 17, of Charlestown.

Teammates were disappointed they lost the match, but didn't feel defeated.

It's their first year in the competition and team members knew it would be a learning experience.

"All the teams we were playing with helped us out a lot, telling us how to do it so we would know when we were out there what to expect," Judkins said.

And that's what it was all about for the more than 1,000 high school students from 36 teams from throughtout New England who put their robots on an indoor field last Thursday and Friday at the district competition for FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

The competition held inside the University of New Hampshire's Lundholm Gymnasium featured teenagers using controls to operate the robots during a game called "Aerial Assist."

The object of the game was to hurl as many balls as possible into the goals during a two-minute, 30-second match.

Each team has six weeks to build a robot that will meet the challenge of the competition's game from a common kit of parts.

All of the teams have mentors who are teachers or professionals from companies such as BAE Systems. Velcro, Fidelity Investments and UNH.

"It gives the kids a role model. It gives them somebody to learn from and they have a leg up when they go to college and go for internships. Companies look for FIRST alums," said Mark Critz, FIRST's regional director for New Hampshire and Vermont.

Dean Kamen, president of Manchester's DEKA Research & Development, founded FIRST in 1989.The competition is a little different this year because it involves nine district events and the teams get two plays for their registration fee instead of only one play, Critz said.

In past years, the competition involved five regional events held at large venues throughout New England. In New Hampshire, the competition was held at the Verizon Wireless Arena.

However, with the competition continuing to grow, Critz said organizers switched to a district model with the nine events held at smaller venues.

"As you grow, it's easier to scale up, so when we have more new teams next year we can just add one more district event as opposed to a big regional," he said.

The best 53 teams from the nine events will head to the New England Region Championship in Boston next month. The best 30 teams from that event will travel to the world championship in St. Louis.

New Hampshire hosted two district events this year - the one at UNH and another on Feb. 28 and March 1 at Nashua High School South. New Hampshire has 31 teams. About half competed at UNH while other schools that were closer to Nashua competed there the week before.

Samuel Lewin, 18, a senior at Goffstown High School, said he logged at least 50 hours writing software for the robot built by his team from Goffstown and Manchester High School West.

"I like meeting the other people and seeing the amount of spirit that every team has and how excited they are to be here to show off their robots and try to do the best they can," said Lewin, who plans to pursue a career in information technology.

Goffstown teammate Alexis Condon, 17, said she likes seeing the different robots at the competition.

"Every robot always looks different and nobody has the same solution to the problem. I just like the spirit of the event. Everybody is competing, but they're still working with each other," she said.

Manchester West junior Alexandra Stone, 17, said the team had a lot of setbacks in the beginning, but they worked through them.

Stone also plays indoor soccer and tennis and has to find time for her sports and the competition.

Windham High School freshman Eric Chin, 15, served as design team captain for his team. The competition is perfect for Chin, who hopes to become a mechanical engineer.

"I like the challenge of designing something that can complete a challenge," he said.

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