Teenagers build robots for a ‘varsity sport of the mind’ in Washington convention center

In early January, a group of District high school dropouts opened a plastic tub full of spare parts and a computer. Six weeks later — with some help from professional engineers — they had turned the materials into Fresh T.E.C.H.S., a boxy robot complete with a conveyor belt of orange tubing and a metal arm that expands to 60 inches.

“It can block, it can shoot Frisbees, and it can climb a pyramid,” Brandon Burd, 17, said proudly.

Fresh T.E.C.H.S. tested its mettle Friday morning with nearly 60 other robots — and the teams that built them — in a regional competition for FIRST robotics at the District’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was created by Dean Kamen, inventor of a wearable insulin pump and the Segway transporter, as a way to boost interest in science and engineering among young people through a “varsity sport for the mind.” The organization creates Lego-based competitions for younger students. Teenagers build robots up to five feet tall and 150 pounds and then put them through a series of contests.

Now in its 22nd season, the contest boasts 51,000 teenagers on 2,500 teams, all aiming to advance to a championship event in St. Louis in April. Teams came from around the Washington region and as far away as Brazil and Israel for the two-day qualifying event in the District over the weekend, sending their robots into an arena rimmed with bleachers full of cheering parents and students wearing pirate hats and a rainbow of team T-shirts.

The builders of Fresh T.E.C.H.S. come from the Fresh Start program at Living Classrooms, a 40-week GED completion and job-skills training program. Many were referred to the program by a juvenile court judge. They had dropped out of traditional high schools and had little or no knowledge of robotics before January.

But as they gathered in the “pit” area backstage, they ticked off jobs for which building Fresh T.E.C.H.S. might prepare them: “construction,” “engineering,” “electrical work,” “building anything.”

In every match during the competition, six teams form two alliances for a three-on-three robot challenge, trying to throw Frisbee-like discs through targets. In the second match, team captain Tayron Gerald, 18, who was directing Fresh T.E.C.H.S. with a joystick on the sidelines, focused on fending off other robots, so Warbot from James Madison High School in Vienna could get into position to score points.

And score it did — sending a stream of discs across the field into the highest goal at a “velocity of 160 miles per hour,” one Madison High teammate exclaimed.

Before the match came to an end, Gerald moved his robot toward a pyramid in the center of the ring and tried to climb it for extra points. But Fresh T.E.C.H.S. didn’t make it off the ground. With at least five more matches to go, they would have another chance, though.

Gerald said he liked the challenge of robotics. “It gets you out of your comfort zone,” he said.

High schools from Florida, Ohio and Brazil earned a spot in the championships for their scores, and three other teams — from Battlefield High School in Prince William County, Herndon High School and a community team in Greenbelt — also earned spots for their performance on and off the field.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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