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Robots rock Clarkson competition

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POTSDAM — Robots invaded a north country college campus this weekend, but they bore little resemblance to their famous cousins C-3PO or WALL-E.

The Clarkson University student center was a hive of furious competition Friday afternoon as teams of teenage wunderkinds and their aluminum automatons competed in the sixth annual FIRST Robotics Championship Tournament.

“It is a sporting event of the mind,” said tournament director James J. Carroll. “It has the excitement of a sporting event with the intellect of robotics.”

The teams built robots designed to hang rings on rods of different heights and lift other robots. In each match, two teams cooperate in an alliance against another two teams. The alliances score points based on the number of rings successfully placed and whether they are able to perform a lift, where one team’s robot raises another into the air.

“It gives us a good opportunity to work together and meet new people,” said Maria L. Cipullo, a Thousand Islands Central School team member. “We learn how to deal with pressure.”

The matches have the air of a professional wrestling show, with enthusiastic play-by-plays from a mohawked emcee and referees in black-and-white striped shirts, buzzers and horns marking time periods, all surrounded by a ring of spectators.

The event was staffed by members of the Clarkson Robotics Team and their partners from Massena Central School and Salmon River Central School.

Christian H. Nichols, a volunteer from Massena, helped teams sign in Friday.

“I got into the robotics because I like math and engineering,” he said. “It’s a good experience because we work with college students. I plan on applying to Clarkson next year.”

Clarkson graduates and guests served as referees and judges for the competition. Joshua J. Miller, a 2010 graduate, smiled after scoring a match.

“We started this when I was here,” he said. “A lot of the teams that are here have members we spent the summer helping, doing summer workshops. This is a growing event.”

Mr. Carroll, the tournament director, has watched the competition grow from 16 teams to more than 40 in just six years, with proliferate school robotics clubs around the north country and surrounding states becoming competitors.

Students began creating the robots months ago, with just a box of parts in front of them. It was up to them to design the machine, build it and program the computer.

At the end of the competition, the team with the highest number of points may move on to the world championships in St. Louis, Mo.

On Saturday, teams of middle school students will compete in the FIRST Lego-league challenge.

FIRST, short for ‘For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology’ was founded by entrepreneur Dean Kamen to instill a love for the STEM fields, or science, technology, engineering and math, in young students. The competition introduces students to robotics, and with it concepts of logical thinking, programming, teamwork, budgeting and time management before they arrive at a university, said Mr. Carroll.

“Studies show that kids are attracted to the STEM fields in the third through eighth grade,” he said. “If you try to late, they’ve already lost interest in technology.”

Mr. Miller, who now works as an electrical engineer for defense contractor General Dynamics, agreed.

“It used to be engineers became engineers in college and learned from a textbook,” he said. “Now, these kids are here well before college learning to design like engineers in industry.”

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