HENRIETTA — Robots have helped Emily Armstrong keep in touch with former classmates.
Speaking in the midst of the bustle of the pit area during practices for the regional FIRST Robotics Competition at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Gordon Field House in March, Armstrong said after Nazareth Academy closed in 2010, she welcomed the opportunity to reconnect with former classmates through the FIRST program.
Even though the members of the former Nazareth Academy FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Team wound up at different schools, they were able to come together again this year to participate in the program. She said they also welcomed new members to the all-female team.
"It’s been nice, especially going to a new school, to meet up with friends," said Emily, 15, who at the time of the March regional competition was a sophomore at Mercy High School.
The team — No. 2340 — included girls from Aquinas Institute, Mercy High School, Bishop Kearney and Webster-Schroeder High School. The team was hosted by Aquinas Institute and the Sisters of St. Joseph and sponsored by Xerox Corp.
Yet collaboration among schools was not limited to the all-girls team. A team hosted by McQuaid Jesuit also featured students from several private and public high schools. McQuaid, which has competed in since 2009, fielded team No. 3173. That team was sponsored by Time Warner Cable and ITT and also featured students from Mercy and Bishop Kearney high schools.
Additionally, Notre Dame High School in Elmira joined the competition for the first time this year, with Team No. 3799, which was sponsored by Corning Inc.
Each of the teams built a robot to compete in this year’s "Logo Motion" challenge, in which alliances of three teams’ robots attempted to hang triangle, circle and square pieces on poles.
Officials with the FIRST program say teamwork is one of the important skills that the competition teaches.
"FIRST is about competition, but it’s also about collaboration," said Glen Pearson, regional director for FIRST of the Finger Lakes — Upstate New York Region, speaking during the regional competition in March. In FIRST terminology, this collaboration is called gracious professionalism: Teams are expected to respect and show kindness to each other, even as they compete fiercely.
Inventor Dean Kamen founded the nonprofit FIRST program in 1989 to foster an appreciation of science and technology among young people. In addition to the robotics competition for high-school students, there also is a technology challenge for high-schoolers, FIRST Lego League for 9- to 14-year-olds, and Junior FIRST Lego League for 6- to 9-year-olds.
Pearson noted that high-school teams involved in FIRST Robotics also are encouraged to help out teams of FIRST Lego Leagues for younger students. Many aid in elementary-team fundraisers and offer technical expertise.
As one example, in the past year, the McQuaid Jesuit team spent about a quarter of its budget to fund nine Lego league teams at Catholic elementary and middle schools, at a cost of about $1,000 each, said John Maxwell, computer science teacher at McQuaid who is the team’s cofounder and coleader, along with parent volunteer Ralph Hudack of Xerox Corp.
"We hope to inspire a great love of science, math and technology in the younger generation," Maxwell said. "The idea behind it is to create progress and the future of economic development in the nation."
The chance to try out engineering is one reason why students say they are drawn to the FIRST program.
"It has given us lots and lots of good experience, hands-on experience," said Abraham Long, 17, who completed his junior year at McQuaid. He said he hopes to go into mechanical engineering.
Megan Keating, 17, who completed her senior year at Mercy High School, said she has been able to bring her personal strengths to McQuaid’s electric subteam.
"I have the smallest hands on the team, so they use me for small repairing jobs," Megan said.
Best friends Anna Knapp and Danielle Samter, who completed their sophomore years at Elmira Notre Dame, led that school’s efforts to start up a FIRST team.
"Last summer we went to robotics camp, and it really inspired us to start the FIRST Robotics Competition team," said 15-year-old Danielle.
The team soon signed on sponsors including Corning Inc., which Danielle said has been incredibly generous to the team in providing financial assistance and employee mentors. Also, Carbaugh Tool Co. allowed the students to store their tools and equipment and have practice space in the workshop.
"Our mentors have been the most amazing people," Danielle said. "I feel like they can’t get enough credit. They have led us through every step."