On Saturday, hundreds of techie teens converged on the University of Vermont’s Dudley H. Davis Center for the FIRST Vermont Tech Challenge, a daylong high school robotics competition.

Think science fair on steroids.

FIRST is a New Hampshire-based nonprofit founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen; the acronym stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It aims to endear kids to engineering and other scientific pursuits, mainly though competitions that are as exciting as they are educational.

FIRST-affiliated tournaments have been going on for years all across the county, but the movement is just booting up in Vermont; UVM’s competition was the first of its kind in the state. It drew 28 teams from the Northeast and beyond — including four from Cranbrook-Kingswood Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. — all vying for two berths in the FIRST World Championships in St. Louis in April. That tournament takes place in the Edward James Dome, where the St. Louis Rams play, in front of 100,000 fans.

UVM's 'bot battle was a smaller affair, but thrilling all the same — especially for STEM-education advocates. I spent the day there and came up with this list of things to love about it:

1. The Pits

I arrived well before the 10 a.m. opening ceremonies to meet the teams. Some of the kids were congregating in the ballroom where the matches would take place, but many were holed up in the pits — rooms down the hall where they could make robot repairs.

A volunteer in a green and yellow tie-dyed T-shirt gave me a pair of safety goggles to put on before I took a tour.

The pits were filled with teens tinkering with their robots. FIRST announces a new challenge each fall, and they'd been building these 'bots ever since. For some, this would be their only chance to compete all season.

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Many students also used their pit tables to set up displays introducing their teams and explaining how FIRST works. Some of them were giving away tchotchkes. Somehow I ended up with a 2013 Demotivator calendar from a school in New Brunswick, N.J. Neat.

2. Kids concentrating intently on objects they made themselves.

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Anybody feeling gloomy about teenagers being uninterested in making or fixing things with their hands should go to one of these competitions. These guys are from Team 5741, the Champlain Valley Union High School RoboHawks, one of five Vermont teams who made it to the competition (two others registered but did not attend). 

When I stopped by their table, a few freshman team members were scrambling to fix their robot's scissor lift, which had broken. They were so focused, they barely had time to acknowledge a reporter. 

Sophomore Noah Mintz Roberts, the oldest member of the team, said they were excited to have made it to their first competition. "This is kind of a new frontier for us," he told me proudly. "It's a milestone in CVU engineering."

3. Bling.

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Most FIRST robotics teams have some sort of bling — usually buttons, T-shirts or plastic beads that promote team spirit. The CVU team had a few of these RoboHawk pins with LED light-up eyes. I asked coach Olaf Verdonk about them. He told me the kids made them by lasering the designs out of balsa wood. He gave me one, and apologized because the light kept flickering out. He had run out of batteries and had stolen these from his kids' electric toothbrushes. Now, that's dedication.

Verdonk pointed out that his robotics club students were similarly motivated. "This is not a class. They're not getting credit for this," he said. "They're doing it because they love it."

"This is what education should be," he said.

4. Costumes.

Most of the teams had uniforms, some more elaborate than others. The RoboHawks wore eye-catching red T-shirts emblazoned with their team and sponsor logos. Other teams had sports jerseys with their names on the back. The Ice Wolves from New Brunswick, N.J., walked around in furry wolf caps. The PAKBOTS from Cranbrook-Kingswood — Mitt and Anne Romney's alma mater — were dressed as soldiers. No idea why. 

5. Mascots.

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I counted four — an eagle, a horse, a robot and this red "wyvern" from the Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford, Conn. I asked the KO team about it. They said they travel to lots of robotics competitions and take this furry get-up with them every time. He's got wings on his back.

I don't know if they have another one that stays on campus to cheer for the football and basketball teams, but it makes me happy to think that this might be the only one.

6. Gov. Shumlin delivering a Vermont sales pitch at the opening ceremonies.

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Vermont's gov was unable to attend the Tech Challenge, but he wasn't about to pass up an opportunity to talk to a bunch of future engineers and computer programmers. "By developing a strong base in the STEM fields, you'll be better prepared for the jobs of tomorrow, which will range from skilled manufacturing to computer technology to engineering, and everything in between," he reminded them. Naturally, he hopes they'll pursue those jobs in Vermont.

7. Animated video of the rules. 

Like robots themselves, the FIRST Tech Challenge rules are fairly complex. Fortunately, FIRST created this short animated film to explain how it all works. 

In short: The three-minute matches take place on a 12-by-12-foot field. They pit two alliances of two teams each against each other. Members of one alliance can attempt to thwart their opponents at any time.

Matches begin with a 30-second autonomous round, in which the 'bots can place a preloaded plastic ring onto a chest-high rack. After that round ends, a 2-minute driver-controlled round begins. The teams score points by making their robots pick up plastic rings and place them on the rack. In the final, 30-second endgame, teams can choose to suspend their ring-hanging and try to lift or be lifted by their alliance partner. The higher the lift, the higher the score. 

I learned that all of this makes more sense after you've watched 5 or 10 rounds.

8. The crowd.

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People get really excited about these robot competitions, even if some of them can't see what's happening on the field. UVM had a camera set up to document the action, so spectators could follow along on the big screen, as well. Tournament co-chair Doug Dickey, assistant dean of UVM's College of Mathematics and Engineering Sciences, told me the school was streaming the event online. Apparently some people were following along at home.

9. Seeing robots put rings on pegs on their own.

Making a robot that will respond to a driver's commands is difficult, but all the teams present seemed able to complete that task. But programming a robot to navigate its own way to a rack, and then place a ring successfully, is a challenge of a different order.

Not many teams were able to master the trick. Here's the first time on Saturday when one did — the West Hartford Wyverns. It happens around 38 seconds in. You can bet that mascot was dancing.

The video shows a three-team match among the Wyverns, the Cougars and the Montpelier-based Robo-Raiders — they're team number 4946.

10. The lift.

As anyone who's seen Dirty Dancing knows, the lift is always the most difficult part of the routine. Many teams didn't even attempt one during Saturday's competition. Not only does it require students to design robots capable of getting another robot off the ground, it also requires coordination with one's alliance partners.

This was the first lift I saw on Saturday. I wasn't close enough to do it justice; it was a magical moment.

11. The Hula Hooping MC.

IBM Fellow John Cohn was one of the day's two MCs — the other, Kristin Winer, was a tournament co-chair. Cohn is an engineering evangelist with 50 patents to his name. In other words, a serious scientist. But not too serious. When technical difficulties postponed one match, he kept the crowd entertained.


The fun-loving Cohn attended MIT and is now involved in the admissions process. Before the start of the event, he told the crowd that 12 percent of this year's incoming class had been involved in FIRST at some point in high school.

You can read Cohn's take on the event on his blog.

12. The local teams.

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Five Vermont teams competed on Saturday. Only one, Essex High School's Cyborg Gentleman Crabs (pictured above), had been to a FIRST competition before. The Essex team made it all the way to the World Championships last year. Megan James profiled them — and the burgeoning local robotics scene — in both Kids VT and Seven Days in October.

In addition to the CVU RoboHawks, other newbie teams this year included the Robo-Raiders from U-32 in Montpelier (pictured below), and 8-Bit Spudniks and Marsupial Madness from Lyndon Institute.


Lyra Wanzer, a sophomore from U-32, told me that her robotics team meets every Friday at 4:30 p.m. to work on its robot. At 6, the members have a potluck and hang out, which is the way they roll in Montpelier.

Lyra described herself as one of the team's builders. "This year I worked a lot on the lifter," she said.

Her coach, Chuck Hoffert, praised the FIRST experience. "It opens up windows for a lot of kids," he said.

Lyndon Institute brought two teams to the UVM competition. They left home at 5 a.m. to make it in time.

But when I met the Spuds in the pit area near the end of the day, they seemed a little discouraged. Both the Lyndon Institute teams hovered near the bottom of the rankings. Lyndon Institute Tech director Twila Perry explained that "the level of competition was surprising." 

I asked senior Zack Trottier how he was feeling about the day. "I expect to get my butt kicked, I know that," he said with a smirk. But he gamely posed for this photo before he left the pit for his next match.

Zack's team didn't make it to the semi-finals — none of the Vermonters did. The Columbia High School Cougars from Clark, N.J., ended up captaining the winning alliance during the finals, earning them a ticket to the Big Dance in St. Louis. Ingenium, a Pelham, N.H.-based team sponsored by MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, captured the tournament's Inspire Award, which recognizes innovative engineering. They'll be heading to St. Louis, too.

But I was just as impressed by Zack and his peers from rural Vermont. They didn't have the same level of sponsorship or experience as the other teams. But they've got heart, and drive, and they're ready to learn. I think it's just a matter of time before they get there.

And money. Did I mention that all of these teams are actively looking for sponsors?

Click here for UVM's tournament results and links to more media coverage.

More information about FIRST here.