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Regional robotics event in Orange tests creativity of students across Northern Virginia
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Regional robotics event in Orange tests creativity of students across Northern Virginia

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A colorful array of costumes, characters and competing robots greeted visitors to Prospect Heights Middle School in Orange as PHMS hosted a FIRST Tech Challenge robotics event Saturday.

Mechanical competitors of varying shapes and sizes representing teams located throughout FIRST Chesapeake’s region traveled to the public middle school in the Town of Orange Saturday in hopes of qualifying for their respective state-level competitions.

The robots arrived with teams of middle school and high school students hailing predominantly from Virginia, with many team members decked out in extravagant costumes, billowing capes or colorful headgear, each in an effort to bring a little bit of their team’s personality into play during the day-long competition.

What is it?FIRST, or “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” is an international organization dedicated to promoting and advancing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

FIRST Chesapeake is its regional office located in Richmond, which coordinates activities in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., said FIRST Chesapeake Executive Director Leighann Scott Boland.

“We use the robot as a vehicle to re-enforce STEM concepts,” Boland said Saturday morning. “FIRST is focused heavily on building basic life skills, including leadership, creativity, cooperation, communication and problem solving.”

Boland said FIRST Chesapeake’s region incorporates 188 teams, which may be sponsored independently or by schools, organizations or other institutions.

“Our season runs from September to February,” Boland said. “Today, they are competing to qualify for states. Ultimately, 58 teams will go to state.”

Boland said Virginia’s state tournament will be held Feb. 22 at Atlee High School in Richmond. A national competition will be held in April in Detroit.

Saturday’s challenge at PHMS was the last of eight state qualifiers held around Virginia during the current season, she said.

“We have about 50 teams here today,” she said. “The majority of them come from Northern Virginia.”

Who it involves

According to the program for Saturday’s challenge, in addition to teams from Northern Virginia and the greater Richmond and Charlottesville areas, one team from Pennsylvania and one team from Maryland attended the event. Teams representing PHMS, Locust Grove Middle School and Orange County High School also competed Saturday.

Boland said Culpeper has a FIRST team, but it competes in a division designated for larger and more powerful robots.

Boland said most teams average 10 to 12 participants. The teams receive information about the challenges for the season in the fall, and begin designing, building and programming their robots to accomplish those tasks.

The robots

Saturday’s competition at PHMS began at 8 a.m., despite a little snow flurry activity in the area. The day began with inspections to make certain all bots met the challenge’s criteria. Following an opening ceremony held at 10:30 a.m., the challengers began competing.

Boland said teams were combined in pairs for Saturday’s challenges, and they competed in pairs against each other. Each match lasted for two minutes, with the first 30 seconds designated for computer-programmed operation. During the final 90 seconds, team members operated their bots by remote control.

The teams did not know with whom they would compete until they arrived Saturday, Boland said.

“Today so far has been fantastic,” Boland said. “This is one of our biggest qualifiers. It always amazes me the energy these kids bring to the challenges. People think it’s going to be like a science fair, but it’s not. These kids get into it; they cheer, they get loud.”

A collaborative effort

Alexander Davis, a junior from Powhatan High School, said he had to get up at 4 a.m. for Saturday’s event.

“We had to get all our gear together and drive up here,” he said.

C.C. Dennison, head programmer for the the Mechanical Paradox team from Howard County, Md., sported a Maryland flag as a cape Saturday as part of her costume.

“The flag has been around for about three years now,” Dennison said. “When I got on the team, I took it and have been wearing it for the past two years.”

Dennison said the first match went well for the team, with a few technical difficulties arising.

“It’s a little intimidating to work with other teams that you haven’t met before, but you work through that,” she said. “I really love science and math; I also love to build things. Working with the other people on your team really merges the social aspect with creating your robots and the programming.”

Finding programming or design weaknesses during competitions is a fairly common experience for the teams, who have to be able fix such problems quickly and on the fly as the event continues throughout the day.

Quinn Fowler, a sixth-grader with Locust Grove Middle School’s Neon Drones, said his team had just such an experience during the first round Saturday morning.

“The first round didn’t go really well for us,” Fowler said. “The wheels weren’t getting any traction on the course.”

Fowler said, despite the game-day surprises, he is enjoying his first year being part of his school’s FIRST Tech Challenge team.

“I joined because I thought it would be fun,” he said. “It’s been really fun.”

Simon Gray, a referee who was one of about 90 volunteers helping oversee Saturday’s event, said he has been involved with FIRST since his kids were participants more than a decade ago.

“I’ve traveled the world with this program,” the Lake of the Woods resident said. “I was recently in Dubai. I was a coach when I started, and now I help however I can.”

Gray said he has plans to stay active with FIRST, even though his kids long ago aged out of the program.

“There is no exit strategy with this,” he said.

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