December 12, 2008

NASA To Sponsor Four Student Teams In FIRST Robotics Competitions

How can you tell when spring is in the air? The robots start showing up everywhere. And NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is happy to help make that happen.

The Marshall Center will sponsor four high school engineering teams -- three from North Alabama and one from Illinois -- whose mechanical and engineering marvels will compete in spring 2009 in the 16th annual FIRST Robotics Competition.

Founded in 1992 by entrepreneur-inventor Dean Kamen from Bedford, N.H., the contest challenges students to design, build and operate robots capable of executing specific tasks. The students are aided by engineering mentors from NASA and other government agencies, industry and universities. But every year the design challenge is wholly new. And teams have just six weeks to work out the bugs and launch their 'bots.

The competition, aimed at stimulating participants' interest in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, is hosted by the national organization FIRST, which stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology." Its goal: to give students practical, hands-on experience solving engineering challenges in a competitive environment.

For the 2008-2009 competition, the Marshall Center will sponsor teams from Limestone Career Technical Center in Athens, Ala.; joint entrants Decatur High School and Austin High School in Decatur, Ala.; Walker County Center of Technology in Jasper, Ala.; and Oregon Community School District in Oregon, Ill.

In 2007-2008, more than 37,000 students on 1,500 teams worldwide competed in 42 regional contests. NASA field centers and the agency's industry partners sponsored more than 200 of those teams.

Tammy Rowan, manager of the Marshall Center's Academic Affairs Office, said Marshall's sponsorship of four schools was based on their award-winning proposals. "The schools respond to a competitive grant opportunity," said Rowan, whose organization handles a broad range of local, regional and national NASA education initiatives. "Performance for Marshall-sponsored teams targets three things -- meeting the competition's build criteria, good project animation and detailed production of a project lifecycle journal.

"Programs such as FIRST Robotics are important for us as sponsors, just as they are for the students," Rowan added. "We welcome the opportunity to partner with organizations devoted to inspiring students to pursue career fields that benefit NASA's exploration mission and the technical and economic leadership of the nation."

Teams will be given the design challenge at national and local kickoff events in January 2009. A kickoff with team sponsors at FIRST headquarters in New Hampshire will be broadcast on NASA Television. Teams must present their robots to FIRST judges for an initial assessment six weeks later. In March, they will begin regional competitions, culminating in the national championship in Atlanta in April.


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