On the robotics circuit


The Maryland State Fair opened in Timonium yesterday with all of the jaw-dropping excess of a 2-ton elephant in a pink polka-dot bikini.

The smooth-talking Kitchen Craft salesman was there, showing off his cookware, as were the 4-H'ers with their freshly scrubbed cows, pigs and sheep. Homemade strawberry preserves, hand-knit sweaters and a mammoth pumpkin shared the spotlight with midway offerings such as the Cliffhanger, the Superslide and Whac-A-Mole. And the air was filled with the distinctive perfumes of funnel cakes, cotton candy and fries.

Somewhere in all of this, in between a stuntman preparing to dive off an 80-foot-tall tower into an air bag and the dairy goat showmanship contest, Sarah Pickford, 15, stood under a white tent waxing poetic about the robot she helped build -- and how much competing in the Foundation for the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology's Robotics Competition taught her about teamwork and engineering.

"It's just fun to get out here and show people what we've been doing," said Pickford, who lives in Springfield, Va., and is homeschooled. As she spoke, her teammate Jason Turner, of Burke, Va., a junior at Lake Braddock High School there, attempted to maneuver their squat machine on wheels from a corner while a crowd of 100 people sitting in the stands looked on. He failed.

"When you get out here, you never know what is going to happen," Pickford said.

Robots seemed like a tough sell amid the fair's glittering fabulousness, but Turner didn't mind. He was having too much fun. "I'm a geek," he joked.

What are homegrown robots doing in a showplace of agriculture? Getting exposure, of course.

"About 300,000 people come through the fair. If only 10 percent of those visitors see the robots, that's still more than we could have reached through schools," said Mike Wade, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineering technician who coordinated the fair demonstration and works with the program during the school year.

"I want kids to go back to their teachers and say, 'Look at what I saw at the fair. Can we do that?'" Wade said.

This is the robots' second year at the state fair. Wade, who lives in Sykesville, got the idea for the demonstration two years ago while supervising his children's 4-H rabbits at the annual event. "Lots of kids who do 4-H are interested in this, too," he said.

"It's not just about building a robot," said Elena Pickford, Sarah's mother and a team volunteer. Her son Joel, 12, also is on the robot team. "It's about fund raising and creativity. A kid with any interests can find a spot on a FIRST team," Elena Pickford said.

Super Bowl of sorts

The robot competition, a sort of Super Bowl of engineering, was started a decade ago by FIRST, a nonprofit group based in Manchester, N.H., dedicated to changing the way Americans look at science and technology.

About 750 teams of high school students from throughout the country -- six from Maryland this year -- work for six weeks each winter to brainstorm, design and build robots that can complete tasks such as putting volleyballs into goals or moving from one zone of the floor to another. The students and their robots compete during the spring in regional and national tournaments for college scholarships. This year, 22 regional competitions will be held, including a new one at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Beginning yesterday and continuing through next week, 24 teams from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington and beyond will take turns demonstrating the robots they have built. During Labor Day weekend, the teams will compete for $8,000 in prize money -- some given to help pay for next year's robots and some awarded as scholarships.

'Teaching teamwork'

Yesterday's crowd -- a mix of children and adults -- sat transfixed as Phoenix, the Northern Virginia team's robot, faced off against Marvin, a robot belonging to a team from a Springfield Township, Pa., high school. The Pennsylvania team's robot, powered not by students but by volunteers Charlie Affel and David Sheffield, silently and effortlessly pushed goals across the floor while the Northern Virginia robot ground its gears and faltered.

When the two robots accidentally locked together, a preschooler in the crowd shouted, "Daddy, look -- they're fighting!"

The robot-against-robot nature of the competition is similar to that seen on the cable TV show BattleBots but with one major distinction, according to Wade: "We're teaching teamwork," he said. "They're teaching destruction.

During regional competitions, it's not uncommon for members of opposing teams to offer advice or spare parts to one another, Wade said. "They'd rather get beaten on the floor than in the pit," he said.

As soon as the 15-minute demonstration ended yesterday, the Pennsylvania team ran out to help the Northern Virginia team troubleshoot their robot. "We help kids with robots," said Sheffield, whose son was on the team last year. "It's what we do."

Dean Sheridan, a math and engineering teacher at Glenelg High School in Howard County, supervised a team of 32 students in the FIRST Robotics Competition for the first time last year. He has participated in other engineering competitions during his 25-year teaching career but said he was especially pleased with how his students have taken to the robots.

Although classes don't start until Monday, he's had a dozen students in his shop every weekday since Aug. 8, fine-tuning their robot for the fair.

"They're not getting class credit," he said. "They're not getting paid. But they're here working on the robot. How many programs are out there in schools where kids are working on projects in the summer?"

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