By Tim Collins
Five local high school students were honoured recently at a competition in which they were required to build and operate a robot in a head-to-head competition with a series of teams made up of more than 1,200 international students from China, Brazil, Mexico and countries around the world.
It all happened in Houston, Texas at the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Tech Challenge (FIRST). FIRST is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1989 to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology.
For this competition, students in grades 7 to 12 form teams to construct, program, and operate their robot to perform a predetermined set of challenges. The robots cannot be bigger than an 18-inch cube, but are required to perform tasks far beyond what most would think possible.
This year, for example, besides having to pick up balls and of a specific colour to score points in a goal, the robots had to light a course of beacons and ultimately lift a 22-inch diameter yoga ball to a height of five feet.
No small feat for a diminutive robot.
Helen Leslie is one of this year’s team members. A Grade 11 student at Victoria High School, Leslie has been a team member for four years and was responsible for “driving” the robot, named Fermion, during the competitions. A fermion is a subatomic particle and seemed an appropriate name for this year’s robot creation. But Leslie laughed at the implication the team is all about science, all the time.
“Last year’s robot was named Larry, and before that we had Lilly,” she said. “This year, the little guy just looked like a Fermion.”
Leslie explained how solving the obstacles presented as part of the FIRST challenge was a great experience and helped prepare the whole team for a future in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields in an ever-changing world.
“It’s already opening some doors for us,” she said, adding that while her current interests centre on chemistry and geology, a recent exposure to physics has expanded her interests even further. “We’ve had a job offer for the summer from one of our sponsors, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other offers were to materialize. But really, right now it’s all about learning and having a lot of fun.”
Christine Nicholls has coached the Victoria team for a decade and is incredibly proud of students’ success.
“These kids are a remarkable group of young scientists whose imagination and creativity have a lot to do with their success. They’re really a very inspiring group,” she said.