Robot Sports: Young Inventors Learn to Save the World While Having Fun

FIRST Robotics Competition Encourages Innovation

by Kaki Flynn

Managing Editor, Jacksonville Magazine

Author Kaki Flynn (right) with Joseph Bolling, student president of  the FIRST Robotics club.
I had a lot of fun spending the day with the FIRST robotics team in Jacksonville, Florida. I definitely would have joined this club if it had existed when I was in school.

The two-car garage at JEA engineer Todd Lovelace's house looks like something out of a Star Wars junkyard, with robots in different levels of assembly hanging from the ceiling, in boxes and in the backyard.

This is Team Resistance, a group of 40-plus students that are hustling to get a robot built for the FIRST Florida Regional Robotics Competition at the University of Central Florida.

These students from high schools around Jacksonville have just six weeks to build a fully functioning robot.

Lovelace's house is filled with robot parts as well. The kitchen table has about six kids sitting around the kitchen table, working on the Team Resistance website. The living room has ten kids staring at computer monitors,  talking back and forth, trying to build the code that will program the robots actions.

The kids on the back porch - surrounded by previous years versions of the robots - are sifting through all of those boxes of parts. A kid that looks about 12 is welding something, sitting cross-legged on the concrete below me. I see small spurts of orange sparks fly as I chat with the different members of the team flowing back and forth around me.

"This robot can feel, follow a line on the floor, look for a green circle or a brown square, or navigate towards a target," explains Lovelace, who became a mentor for the club in 1996 after students approached JEA (Jacksonville Electric Authority) asking for help.

JEA has been a sponsor ever since, pitching in to underwrite these contests to help pay for the parts needed to compete-valued at around $10,000 every year-because the company understands the value of the skills these kids gain.

"Engineering is fundamental to everything that supports the developed world," says Lovelace. "You need systems that provide fresh water, and ways to dispose of human waste. Engineers design those systems."

FIRST (First in Recognition of Science and Technology) is a national non-profit founded by iconic inventor Dean Kamen, the guy who became famous for coming up with the Segway, but who is also responsible for everything from breakthroughs in water purification systems to solar technology.

Kamen says that FIRST is his favorite invention, and formed the non-profit as a way to get kids inspired in math and science.

Robot Soccer, A Past Competition:

Some of these young inventors have gone from tinkering with ways to get a robot to put a ball in a basket to working at NASA-a national sponsor of FIRST-to attending MIT, Yale and other prestigious colleges.

Most find out about the club through word-of-mouth, with the majority of the students from Stanton College Prepatory School and Paxon School for Advanced Studies.

Team Resistance is sent a box of robot parts, but no instructions; so they have to design and test on the fly, right up until the deadline.

A recent day at Lovelace's house found Stanton College Prep seniors Madeline Bellemore and Priscilla Brubeck huddled around a desk in the kitchen drawing diagrams of a claw for the robot using a computer graphics program.

Another handful of students sat around the kitchen table designing the website (, while another group was on the back porch testing the programming code that controls the robot's movements.

The rest of the students were rummaging through boxes of spare parts, soldering pieces together, or consulting with the engineers and former students that act as mentors.

Despite the high-pressure competition, the is team knows how to have fun, even if it occasionally means rattling the judges, wich is what earned them the name "Team Resistance."

The lead inventor on the team is Stanton senior Joseph Bolling. "One year, we added Pac-Man audio along with some belching sounds to our robot; the referees were so annoyed they made us turn it off."

The judges that heard the "wakka-wakka" sounds, however, were impressed, and Team Resistance was given the Xerox Creativity Award for Innovation.

At the FIRST events, teams participate in Battle-bot like competitions against each other, running the robot through obstacle courses and other challenges for points.

Team Resistance, who usually shows up with their hair spray-painted lime green to match their logo (above), has won the regional competition three out of the last four years, and is ranked nationally in the top 25 percent, an impressive number considering that some of the 2,000 teams that compete globally have sponsors that provided up to half-a-million dollars in support.

If they place in the top again this year, the team will head to the 2011 FIRST Championship in St. Louis to compete for $14 million in college scholarships.

Team Resistance, Having fun using engineering skills to launch pumpkins into the St. John's River:

>> Get involved with a FIRST Team Near You 

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