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March in Richmond... That Means Robots!

Bearing names like “Loose Screws,” “Polka-Bots,” “RoboWarriors,” and even “Geeks in Just Their Underpants,” forty-eight scholastic robotics teams from across Virginia converged on Richmond Saturday, March 2, 2013 for the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) Virginia State Championship.

Having prevailed in one of seven regional qualifier contests, the young engineers faced-off for statewide bragging rights, and for the opportunity to win just two spots at the FIRST World Championship in St. Louis in late April.

After dozens of qualifying and elimination rounds, a rookie team from Earlysville in Albemarle County led the winning alliance and qualified for the world event. “Defying Gravity” is a community based team made up of middle school and high school students. Team coach Trish Kenney said she was “speechless” as her team members celebrated the victory.

A community-based team from the Christiansburg/Blacksburg area earned the other spot at the world contest by winning the Inspire Award, one of FIRST’s most prestigious honors, bestowed by event judges on a team for being an outstanding role model for other students and outreach in its community. The “Tuxedo Pandas” also are a mix of middle school and high school students and coach Franky Marchand acknowledged the team’s next big challenge is raising money for the St. Louis trip.

FIRST is an international non-profit that organizes high-energy robotics contests to inspire young people to take an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and careers. This year’s FTC contest, “Ring it Up!” challenged remote controlled robots to fetch and hang plastic rings on a rack, all the while being jostled by other robots.

More than a thousand people, including team members, supporters and spectators came out for the daylong FTC state championship at the Arthur Ashe Center. Every team had a cheering section, including the team from Brooke Point High School in Stafford County, led by co-captain Nick Butler, who uses a robotic wheelchair due to Muscular Dystrophy. “BP Robotics” finished 15th in their division and vowed to be back next year.

Technology fans in Richmond receive a double-dose of robotic thrills in March. On March 15-16, VCU’s Siegel Center will play host to the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Virginia Regional. FRC is the signature “varsity” program of FIRST, involving larger teams and robots up to five feet tall and tipping the scales at up to 150 pounds.

Want to go to the FIRST Robotics Competition Virginia Regional on March 15-16, 2013?
It will be held at VCU’s Siegel Center, 1200 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA.

Best viewing is 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and it is Free and Open to the Public. Visiting youngsters can test drive a robot and earn their “robot driver’s license”

For more information go to virginiafirst.org

Story by Jim Babb, VirginiaFIRST
Photos by Bill Sigafoos, VirginiaFIRST

Watch this Science Matters report from WCVE Public Radio’s John Ogle: