Student-built robots, 2001 Regional Conference in L.A.

The Archer School for Girls team (right) maneuvers their robot.

L.A. regional competition, 2001

As the buzzer sounds, the robots sprint toward the center of the arena. Using metallic "arms" and other clever gadgets not seen on humans, the remotely controlled machines manage to grab a giant beach ball and attempt to dunk it into an oversized basket.

The crowd goes wild at every move as the machines try to score as many points as they can, pulling no punches.

Complete with referees, time clocks, loud music and cheerleaders, the game has the flavor of a futuristic fight, the pulse of a rock and roll concert and the excitement of an NBA playoff game. Everyone comes out a winner.

Welcome to a robotics competition organized by First, a non-profit organization that fosters interest in math, science and technology. The group's name, "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," is a message taken seriously by the thousands of high school students whose lives have been changed by these machines.

With sponsorship provided by JPL and other NASA centers around the country, students have six weeks to design and build a robot under the tutorship of engineers and scientists. How well they do depends on the soundness of their design.

The next chance these teenagers will have to show off their robots is a scrimmage set for Wednesday, Nov. 7, at JPL. The regional competition will take place at the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena on April 4, 2002. Registration for the regional competition is open through December 7.

While the rules and specifications of the robots change every year, the memories and lessons learned remain the same year after year. Just ask any of the students involved in past competitions.

Lauren Lyons, who took part in the competition while attending Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles, credits the experience with changing her forever.

"The robotics competition has changed my life like nothing else in this world has," said Lyons, who in 2000 and 2001 went with her team all the way to the national tournament in Florida. "Two years ago I wanted to go into business, I wanted to do simply what I knew would make me rich."

Now a freshman at Princeton University, she is majoring in mechanical engineering and plans to become an astronaut, a goal inspired by a field trip to Kennedy Space Center following the national tournament in Orlando, Fla.

"Building a robot is so much fun, even if you don't want to become an engineer you should try and join a team. You learn so much about life and working with people," she said from her dorm at Princeton after a tough physics midterm. "Worst comes to worst, you'll end up with really marketable skills, like you'll know how to hook up a pneumatic network or how a speed-controller works."

Participating in the program not only made her appreciate math and science, but also made her actually enjoy them, she said in astonishment.

"Three engineers from JPL helped us and they were wonderful," she said. "They gave us the analytical tools and so much guidance, something physics books couldn't give us."

For her part, in the next few months Lyons will be volunteering her time and expertise to the Trenton High School team in New Jersey.

"First provides kids with an intellectual sanctuary, a place where they can work hard and play hard," Lyons said.

Last year JPL sponsored 24 teams, providing mentor engineers to school and volunteers to staff the regional competition. Altogether, last year NASA sponsored more than 100 teams.