As the Spring semester starts up, it brings with it several second-semester icons. Cold weather, spring rush and New Year’s resolution fueled trips to the CRC, all herald the start of the second half of the academic year.
For some long-time math and science fans, though, it brings a wave of nostalgia about a very peculiar topic: robots.

For many students, the start of the spring semester means the start of the FIRST Robotics season, and this spring is no exception.

FIRST—which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”—is an organization dedicated to encouraging students to get involved in science and engineering.

The vision is, “to transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders,” according to the website.

One of their largest outreach programs is the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), an international competition at which high school students build robots that try to complete a specific challenge, then pit their robots against those of other teams.

On Saturday, Jan. 8, the RoboJackets hosted the regional kickoff event for the 2011 FRC. Each year, this event both celebrates the start of the FIRST season and helps teams prepare for the challenges they will be trying to solve during the actual competition.

“The goal of the kickoff event was to help the high school robotics teams have an easy transition into the FIRST season,” said Jannice Parks, events manager for the RoboJackets and a third-year ISyE major.

In addition to the official purpose, the event also served as an introduction for high school students to the world of FIRST.

Throughout the event, there are several workshops aimed at teaching students how to actually work with the machines, in addition to teaching general strategies for how to succeed in the competition.

According to Parks, approximately 500 participants were at the kickoff event, with about 35 volunteers.

In addition to the challenge announcement, various workshops on the nitty-gritty details of working with robots were also featured at the event.

The RoboJackets hosted four types of workshops throughout the afternoon. Participants unfamiliar with robotics could learn about the mechanical, electrical, game-playing and programming (done using LabVIEW) aspects of the competition.

“Workshops are vital in creating an easy transition into the start of the FIRST season. One of the RoboJackets’ primary goals is to have all teams who attend the workshops to leave with [a] robot that will require only some final assembly,” according to the event’s page on the RoboJackets site.

Parks said her favorite part of the kickoff was the actual unveiling of this year’s challenge, called “Logomotion.” Each match consists of three rounds. In the first, robots start out holding an inflated ring and need to somehow place this ring on a peg on its team’s wall without any input from human players.

After this autonomous round ends, players take manual control of their robots and attempt to hang inflated squares, triangles, and rings (elements of the FIRST logo) on their wall during the second round. Bonus points are awarded for completed logos, as well as any piece covering rings placed in the autonomous round.

The final round is a mini-robot race. The robots from the first two rounds deploy “mini-bots” on poles in the middle of the arena, and teams receive bonuses based on the order the bots reach the top of the poles.
While teams obviously aim to win the competition, much of emphasis is placed on the off-the-field aspects of the competition, particularly the idea of “Gracious Professionalism.”

As a result, one of the more coveted awards in the competition is the Chairman’s Award, which focuses on the non-competition aspects of the event.

“The Chairman’s Award was created to keep the central focus of the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) on our ultimate goal of transforming the culture in ways that will inspire greater levels of respect and honor for science and technology,” as described on the FIRST site.