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When robots compete, students win

Local youths among 1,000 at regionals

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Richard Thompson
Globe Correspondent / April 6, 2008

They've both been accepted at MIT, where they plan to study mechanical engineering. So it's no surprise that Alban Cobi and Bruno Piazzarolo, seniors at the John D. O'Bryant School of Math and Science in Roxbury, were among more than 1,000 high school students who competed in last weekend's Boston FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Regional Robotics Competition at Agganis Arena.

Like members of the other 50 teams who competed, including 14 schools from Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge, the O'Bryant School kids spent six weeks in January and February designing and building a robot to race around a large, oval track while moving 40-inch inflatable balls over and under obstacles.

Piazzarolo, standing by a small work station in the back of the arena reserved for teams to reassess and rebuild in between matches, said his group spent about five hours a day working on their robot after school and stretched the workday even longer as they picked up the pace over February vacation.

"We put all the materials in the box and had to ship it out and our time was done," he said. "And then when we got here, we finished building it and programming it, and that's when we got it to work."

Segway creator Dean Kamen started the robotics competition in 1989 as a way to spark interest in math and science, and organizers brought it to Boston in 2006. These days, it features a full roster of Boston schools, including 11 that have formed groups in the past two years.

The games the robots must play change every year, and the school teams are seeded during a warm-up round to find competition partners and form alliances. For two days starting on March 28, six robots, representing two alliances of three schools each, raced around the track, manipulating the inflatable balls during two scoring periods. In the first round, the robots run without driver control for 15 seconds.

During the second round, the robots are driver-controlled for two minutes while the teams try to score by getting the robots to knock balls from an overpass at the center of the court or, using extending arms and other maneuvers, to make a pass over the overpass.

The matches were fast-paced, set amid a backdrop of blasting rock music. Parents and classmates - many sporting school colors and mascots - packed the seats, shouting and cheering on their schools.

The group of five from New Mission High School in Roxbury struggled to keep its robot from wobbling on the court during the morning matchup, but as they packed up their equipment in the early afternoon, Tieasia Kemp, 17, was already thinking about strategy for next year.

"We'll spend more time on the basics," Kemp said, fiddling with one of the dozen small lapel pins she had collected as souvenirs from other teams over the course of the tournament. "Not as much time on the difficult parts."

Not to be outdone by the rush of recent local entries, veterans Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, working alongside Chelsea High and mentors from MIT were part of the alliance that came in second place overall for the weekend. Rindge and Latin teams have competed for the last 12 years, traveling to other cities for the competition before it was staged in Boston.

Boston University Academy, a private high school launched by BU in 1993, hosted a competition kick-off event in early January for Boston students to meet other teams, pick up parts, and listen to a live broadcast of the national rules and details of the game.

It costs teams about $10,000 to participate in one competition, with funding typically derived from companies, grants, or school fund-raising. Students who participate are later eligible to apply for nearly 500 scholarships, totaling more than $9.6 million.

Gary Garber, who has coached the BU Academy team for a decade and works as a physics and math instructor at the academy, said the local competition has "grown significantly" in the past few years, and acknowledged that sponsorships are key.

"The hardest thing for a team that makes the difference between survival and folding is if they can get sponsorship," he said.

This year, clocking in at 105 pounds and featuring a 7-foot arm that can extend using compressed air, the robot from O'Bryant carried the team to the quarterfinals, where the students ran into some mechanical problems and fell short in the tie-breaking match.

As he helped push it from the court, Cobi was unfazed. "Everybody here helps each other out," he said. "It doesn't matter who you're facing, your enemy will always give you a battery."

To see a video of Boston teams competing in the robotics competition, visit: boston.com/cityweekly

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