Sponsors Underwrite Student Robotics Competition to Encourage Careers in Science, Engineering

By Courtney Thompson April 1, 2010, 2:47 PM EDT

MIT Media Lab's Dr. Hugh Herr speaking at Friday's competition

Photo: Aviran Levy for BizBash

US First Robotics Regional Competition
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The Boston chapter of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (First) hosted its fifth annual regional robotics competition at the Agganis Arena over the weekend, where some 1,500 area students competed in a Iron Man-like competition—for robots, that is.

Launched in 1989 in New Hampshire, First aims to promote STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—to students around the world, encouraging kids to eventually enter these fields as adults. The First Robotics Compeition (F.R.C.) arm of the non-profit today comprises 1,809 teams or 45,225 high school students who are able to compete thanks to sponsorship dollars from NASA, Boston University, PTC, Chevron, General Electric, EMC Corporation, and many others.

But what is the upside for companies that invest in what is essentially a high school science project? Software company PTC’s senior vice president of solutions marketing and communications, Robin Saitz explained: “Our customers have a very grave concern about the pipeline of engineers coming into their companies. If our customers are concerned, then PTC is concerned. One of the things that’s appealing about First is that we can work with our customers to solve this problem. Through funds and software and people donations, we can help grow the First program, which helps achieve this goal of exciting young people about STEM.”

F.R.C.’s rules are stringent. Once the $6,000 registration fee is paid, the students receive their materials and have six weeks to create a robot of no more than 120 pounds. The more funding raised, the better, as teams often need extra parts to construct their robot. Team sponsors also frequently donate manpower, in the form of employees who mentor the teams. In PTC’s case, the company offered its software to all First teams to aid in the design of their robots.

In terms of return on investment, sponsorship dollars don’t bring in the traditional results. “We measure the success by the number of teams adopting our software to create their robots,” Saitz said, adding that the company’s clients include Motorola, Boeing, and Airbus. “This year 400 teams registered to use Windchill, which is up significantly from last year. The soft metric—the greater value, however—is the way we’re changing the dynamics of our relationships with our customers. Companies like to do business with companies they like, so when our customers see us involved with First, which is aligned with their objectives, it interests them.”

Friday’s events consisted of qualification matches where the teams’ robots competed on a 50- by 24-foot carpeted field loaded with obstacles such as bumps on the ground and platforms the robots had to hang from. Saturday was elimination day, with all the teams broken into brackets to lead to the eventual winner. “It’s our own version of March Madness,” said Mikell Taylor, president of the Boston First Regional planning committee.

Produced by Show Ready Events, the competition took over the hockey rink. The field was on one side, and the other side functioned as a Nascar-like pit where the students tweaked and upgraded their robots before and during matches. “It’s pretty intense in there: You see these 13-year-old kids writing code and using hand and machine tools,” Taylor said. “We purposely keep it open to the public, so that everyone can see how much knowledge these kids are gaining, knowledge that can’t be garnered in a classroom.”

Three teams from the region will head to the F.R.C. championship in Atlanta April 15-17. In total, 45 regional competitions took place this spring, in cities like Washington, D.C. (March 4-6), Orlando (March 11-13), Chicago (March 18-20), and Las Vegas (April 1-3).

In addition to F.R.C., First is also organizes a less costly First Tech Challenge for high school students and the two First Lego Leagues for students aged 6 to 9 and 9 to 14.

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