The Super Bowl of Smart

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be slackers when the difference between success and failure is as simple as building a robot

By Brad LemleyFeb 6, 2005 6:00 AM
Student-built robots vie for the high bar at the First Robotics Competition nationals at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. TF5, by Mississippi’s Gulfport High School, is on the left; May Day, by Connecticut’s Suffield and Windsor Locks High Schools, is on the right. | Beth Perkins


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Gael Force is not one of your pretty-boy robots. Five feet tall, three feet wide, weighing in at 127 scrappy pounds, it features a boxy aluminum frame, 27 steel gears, 14 greasy sprockets, two toy-car motors, and battle-scratched body armor. In a world of increasingly cutesy automatons—think of Sony’s AIBO simulated dog—it has the visual appeal of a sump pump.

But on a sunny afternoon last April, Gael Force was eating the lunch of two attractive, color-coordinated robots on a small playing field in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. In the course of a two-minute contest, it gathered up and delivered six small balls, deftly placed a beach-ball-size sphere on a large tee, and with just 20 seconds left on the clock, reached up, grabbed, and hung from a 10-foot-high bar, winning the contest. “It went awesome,” exclaimed 18-year-old Joseph Parker, wheeling the robot back to the pit area for a tune-up.

Parker is one of 36 students from Clinton High School in Clinton, Massachusetts, who designed and built Gael Force as their entry in the First (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, an annual challenge that brings together hundreds of teams of junior high and high school technophiles from around the world. Using a standard kit of parts supplied by First, each student team must build a robot in six weeks that will outscore other robots in an elaborate game, the rules of which change every year. The teams compete in regional trials, and the winners advance to the nationals each April to jointly test their engineered metal. Gael Force’s impressive performance at the Atlanta nationals had advanced the team to the quarterfinal round, now just two hours away.

“Oh, my God, we won in like the last two seconds!” cried team member Kate Murray, 17, back in the pit. “I feel like we just won the championship!”

Murray, Parker, and the rest of the Clinton team are following a well-oiled track. Clinton High was one of the 28 schools in the first First competition in 1992; the team won in that inaugural year and has since become something of a tournament darling. The surprise is that Clinton, which routinely smacks down affluent schools in these competitions, is not full of college-bound kids from fancy neighborhoods; it is full of everyday kids whose parents work in blue-collar jobs. More important, First is doing what it was designed to do at schools like Clinton—drastically alter the career paths of students. Fifteen years ago, maybe three Clinton graduates a year went on to pursue a technical or engineering career; now, about 20 do so. In 2003, for the first time in the school’s recent history, a Clinton grad went to MIT.

During a break in the robotics action that afternoon, Michael Mullinax, a Clinton sophomore, considered other trajectories he might have taken without First to focus on: “I really think I would have been a slacker. I could have been someone with no motivation to do much of anything. But this shows me where hard work can get you. I’m totally hooked.”

Brad Kulis, a senior and the pit leader responsible for tweaking Gael Force in preparation for its pending quarterfinal challenge, found some amazing grace in the program: “I was just lost. Now engineering is it.” 

First is the brainchild of Dean Kamen, the renowned inventor of the Segway scooter, who conceived the competition in 1989 in an attempt to make engineering cool among teenagers. “Societies get what they celebrate,” Kamen told me in April 2003. We sat in a skybox at Reliant Stadium in Houston, overlooking that year’s First nationals—a hullabaloo of gadgetry and unbridled teen energy set to throbbing pop music piped in over the stadium’s speakers. “Most people have already decided by age 12 that they are not smart enough to be engineers. During the golden decade, from ages 7 to 17, we need to encourage people to celebrate the things that will improve this country and culture.”

The numbers support Kamen’s concern. In 1975 the United States ranked third among nations surveyed in the share of 18- to 24-year-olds receiving engineering and natural science degrees. By last year, the nation had plummeted to 17th. The slide has long aggravated Kamen, who looked to sports for a model to reverse the decline. “I realized that for a relatively small amount of money, we could create an event that will compete for the attention of kids on the same basis as athletics.” He decided to “create a Super Bowl of smarts.”

Similar efforts had been tried before. Kamen’s breakthrough was his direct appeal to corporate America for serious manpower and money. “I called the companies that do world-class engineering and said, ‘We will make your guys the Michael Jordans of science and invention.’ ” As president of DEKA Research & Development Corporation, Kamen had enormous credibility. His 35,000-square-foot New Hampshire house features two helicopters, a steam engine in the foyer, and a softball field with lights. Kamen says corporations quickly realized that supporting First was an investment rather than charity. The kids from Clinton High serve as a good example: More than 30 First competitors have ended up working for Nypro, the plastics manufacturer that sponsors the hometown team.

Meanwhile, the kids love it. The program has grown wildly in 14 years, and today it involves 1,000 high schools and more than 23,000 students. A junior high version, called the First Lego League, in which students ages 9 to 14 build robots out of plastic bricks and compete in a tabletop challenge, has also taken off.

As Kamen rolled away on his Segway—he goes everywhere on it—I wandered, amazed, on the floor of the Houston stadium. It was a gonzo-chic celebration complete with costumes, face paint, nutty booth displays (for some reason, stuffed monkeys were a recurring motif), raucous music, and the excitement of a football game, all in the service of sophisticated engineering. Shouting over the din, kids in the pit area showed off complex transmissions, photoelectric tracking, and even inertial guidance systems on their robots. Several made the point that at First the emphasis is on “gracious professionalism” rather than winning; teams routinely lend labor, parts, even whole robots, to one another.

“At the Lone Star Regional, one team’s robot was shipped upside down,” said Tonya Scott, an adult mentor to the team from Oklahoma’s Ponca City High School. “It arrived in a thousand pieces. Every team in the building converged on that pit to fix it.”

I strolled on, turning left at the Lost in Space robot, right at the guy dressed like a hammerhead shark, then stumbled across the Clinton High team for the first time. Most other teams had a theme: hard hats, love beads, purple hair. Not the Clinton delegation. Matching green T-shirts was as wacky as they got. But there was a giddy joy in the Clinton High pit. While other teams emitted a positive vibe, this one was in engineering ecstasy, constantly—compulsively—tinkering with their robot between matches. The diligence and devotion paid off: Their robot got the better of powerhouse NASA-coached robots before failing in the divisional semifinals to a formidable bot backed by both DaimlerChrysler and General Motors.

“We’re having so much fun, it’s awesome,” said Kate Murray, whose father, mother, and brothers were active in First. “It gets better and better every day with every match.”

It’s been a lousy half century for Clinton, Massachusetts. Located 50 miles west of Boston on the south branch of the Nashua River, with a population of some 13,000, Clinton was once a booming textile hub; the carpets of the Bigelow Carpet Company once graced the White House and the SS Titanic. But the business of making rugs—not to mention tweed, lace, shoes, and wire fencing, all of which rolled out of Clinton by the ton early last century, slipped away to China and India. The Bigelow plant closed in the 1940s; today its massive redbrick facade dominates a fraying downtown of pizza parlors and discount stores.

Industry hangs on in the form of Nypro, a plastic-parts manufacturer that has filled the old Bigelow shell with gleaming machines that spit out pens, medical tubing, and cell phone cases. After hours, the company turns over its machine shop to the First students from Clinton High. With Nypro engineers as mentors, the students gather every night and weekend from December to April, planning, hammering, bolting, testing, and refining their dream machine. I dropped by one Saturday in February—prototype day. 

Thirty-four of the 36 students who make up Clinton High School’s First robotics team cluster on the full-size practice playing field they built in a Nypro corporation warehouse. Their near-winning entry, Gael Force, stands in the center. Even at the high school level, robots don’t come cheap: Of the $3,500 robot-building budget to which all teams are limited, Clinton devoted $3,231 to Gael Force. They spent another $2,500 to create the indoor practice field. | Beth Perkins

As the popularity of First has grown over the years, so, too, have the ambitions of its student contestants. In 1992 the robots were shoebox size, tethered to controllers, and required to pluck tennis balls from a bed of dried corn kernels. Nowadays the robots weigh more than many of the kids (the maximum limit is 130 pounds, and most robots barely make it), are wireless, can be customized with parts bought on the open market, and face a fiendishly complex array of challenges. In 2004 robots won points for knocking a 13-inch ball off a tee, scooping up and delivering 13-inch balls to a human player to toss into a basket, topping the basket with a 30-inch ball, and hanging from a 10-foot-high bar. To heighten the challenge, the robots were required to work autonomously for the first 15 seconds of each two-minute match; only then could two team members commence remote-control piloting.

The Clinton students divided into a half-dozen groups and made concept models of various robot parts—the ball gobbler, the bar grabber, and the like. In the early 1990s, the Clinton team was content to create prototypes out of duct-taped cardboard. Now they design many components with SolidWorks software, the same computer-aided-design program that Nypro uses to create its elaborate fabricating machines, and they build with steel, industrial-grade plastic, and aluminum.

“We’re working on a way to wrap a wire around the bar so the robot can hang from it,” Andrew Grady, one of the mentors, said.

“How does the wire reach the bar in the first place?” I asked.

Grady paused. “That’s the tricky part.”

While one subgroup developed a prototype of a vacuum-powered ball grabber, another worked out an articulated chassis that could climb a six-inch-high platform—one of the obstacles on the playing field—like an inchworm scaling a leaf. A third group built a sophisticated six-wheel omnidirectional drive. “It can move sideways without turning,” said Angel Martinez, a slim, fast-talking sophomore. “Quicker and more efficient.”

Watching the prototypes roll, grab, and gyrate, I began to wonder if towns, like people, have ingrained propensities, a sort of municipal DNA. Maybe the drive for engineering excellence that helped the old Clinton prosper never died.

“When your idea works, it feels like you just won the Boston Marathon,” Janelle Donnini, 14, said with a huge smile.

“It’s just wicked exciting,” said Gena Bevilacqua, 16.

To an adult bystander, the community that formed around this engineering challenge was more striking than the technical feat. “It’s like my daughter has 35 brothers and sisters,” said Jannine Bevilacqua, nodding at her daughter Gena. “This program has made her self-confidence blossom. She waits all year for the next season to come.”

Student teams begin with a standard kit of 300-plus parts (worth about $16,000) supplied by First. Clinton augmented theirs with specialized parts (shown here), many of which they designed and built themselves. | Beth Perkins

One weekend during prototype season, Amy Weeks, a freshman in chemistry at MIT and possibly the first Clinton student ever to attend that university, stopped by the machine shop to visit her former teammates. She is slight and soft-spoken and still amazed by the course her life has taken. “It just didn’t occur to me to be in engineering before First, because I didn’t think I was smart enough. The program showed me that, OK, I can do engineering. That made me realize that, OK, I can do anything.”

Also striking is the bond forged between students in the program and the adults who volunteer to help them. As Dean Kamen predicted when he dreamed up First, one emergent property of robot-building is hero realignment.

“Jorge is a role model in my life,” said Mike Murray, a senior. “I absolutely look up to him.”

That would be Jorge Martinez, a Nypro engineer who has worked with the Clinton team for 12 years. “I think most teams will make a robot that can do just one or two things,” he said, watching Joseph Parker grind down some transmission gears. “We’re crazy enough to make a robot that does everything. We’ll see how it works.”

The homely robot that emerged from the design process last March sported an ingenious forklift-style ball lifter that doubled as a bar grabber, and it looked to be a contender. Late in the month, at a regional event in Hartford, Gael Force rumbled to a second-place finish out of 51 teams. In autonomous mode, directed by several thousand lines of C code in its microcontroller, it aced its mission: trundling some 15 feet, lifting its arms, pirouetting, and knocking a ball off a tee, a feat comparable to picking up a 7-10 split in bowling. Then the three human players—Kate Murray, Gena Bevilacqua, and Joseph Parker—would make it dodge, weave, pick up and disgorge balls, and finally hang from the bar, freestyle, with only moments to spare. The play was refreshingly civilized. The robots, which work in teams of two, concentrate on the tasks at hand, not on bashing each other.

“It isn’t Battlebots,” said Tom O’Connell, an adult volunteer.

And so it was with great expectations that the Clinton team left for the Atlanta nationals in April. Again I wandered the pit area in a daze, past themed teams wearing pink tutus, leopard suits, and T-shirts that read “Sleep is for the Weak.” In a speech to the throng, Woodie Flowers, a dapper engineer from MIT who each year rejiggers the game rules with Kamen, emphasized that colleges and companies are ardently pursuing First’s participants, doling out some 200 scholarships worth $4.9 million.

In just 12 months since the Houston nationals, the robots had made a leap in sophistication: One from the Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science in Worcester could climb a six-inch platform, reach up, grab the bar, hang, and unfurl a protective cowling that kept other robots from hanging there—all in autonomous mode. Once again, poorer teams from farm towns and blighted industrial cities seemed to regularly outscore well-financed teams from metropolitan centers. Clinton brought down its largest-ever delegation: 35 students and 25 adults. As in the real world, there are no free rides; to qualify for the trip, each student had to put in long hours, often 80 or more, of robot-creating and had to help raise sponsorship money. For a town without much cash to spare, local businesses were accommodating. “It’s not just us,” said Gordon Lankton, the chairman of Nypro. “All of Clinton gets behind this team.”

While the Clinton entourage watched and cheered from the stands, Gael Force did its thing, juking, jiving, and plucking its way into the two-minute quarterfinals match. The contest would pair Gael Force with a robot from Pontiac, Michigan, against a pair of robots from New Jersey and New York. At the starting horn, Gael Force, self-guided, whizzed onto the field and turned smartly toward the ball on the tee, but for the first time in three weeks and after dozens of matches, its arm snagged on a guardrail, and it failed to knock a ball off its mark. The robot recovered quickly in human-controlled mode, adroitly feeding balls to Kate Murray, who expertly fed them into a basket. The doughty robot then rumbled up to the 10-foot-high bar. With only 15 seconds left, Gael Force grabbed on and hoisted itself skyward. The claxon sounded, a cheer erupted, and Clinton looked to be on its way to the finals.

Then it happened. At the end of each match, the teams must cut power to their robots, and the hanging robots must remain aloft in order to score 50 points. When the juice drained from Gael Force, to the horror of the Clinton team, it slowly sank and touched the ground. Teams enter the quarterfinals in groups of three, from which they form varying two-team alliances for each quarterfinal match. When Clinton’s two allies lost their matches a few minutes later, the season was over.

Afterward, inspecting Gael Force in the pit, the Clinton team located the problem. In snagging itself on the guardrail, the robot had sheared off a pin meant to lock its forklift arms and keep it hanging when its power was flicked off. “It’s the race-car driver’s lament,” said Al Cotton, a public-relations officer with Nypro. “It’s always the 25-cent part that kills you.”

The green-shirted Clinton team was subdued later that afternoon as they crated up Gael Force for the journey home. “It really isn’t about winning,” said Brad Kulis, the pit boss. “But it is nice to win.” The gloom began to dissipate. Joseph Parker started gathering up tools and, sure enough, his old upbeat self.

“It sounds weird, but in the end, what happened in the match really doesn’t matter,” Parker said. “Everybody did what they were supposed to do. I still love every aspect of this.” He planned to attend the University of Massachusetts at Amherst the following year to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. Afterward, he just might come back to Clinton, invent something that can be manufactured there, and help the town recover its old, industrial, upbeat self.

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