Michiganders have good reason to say "domo arigato, Mr. Roboto!" On April 18, teams from Michigan high schools dominated the finals of the 2009 international FIRSTTM Robotics Competition in Atlanta, Ga., with Milford High School's "Heroes of Tomorrow" winning as part of the first-place three-team "alliance." Three Michigan teams comprised the runner-up alliance: the Utica Community Schools' "ThunderChickens," the Oakland County Schools' "Truck Town Thunder," and Berkley High School's "Da Bears."
Considering that this year's competition began with 1,680 teams from all over the world, placing four teams in the top six qualifies as a Great Lakes State smackdown.
Contrary to what the name might suggest, the FIRST Robotics Competition has been held annually since 1992. FIRST — "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology" — is the nonprofit organization responsible for the competition. This year's FRC drew students and robots from schools around the world, including Brazil, Canada, Germany, Israel, Turkey, Mexico, the Netherlands, the United States and the United Kingdom.
The FRC has experienced meteoric growth in participation and interest. In its inaugural year, "28 teams competed in a high school gym in New Hampshire," said FIRST Communications Manager Marian Murphy. Seventeen years later, nearly 1,700 teams participated in the FRC competition, stretching from late February to mid-April. Bill Miller, director of the FIRST Robotics Competition, projects that next year's FRC will host more than 1,800 teams. This year, Michigan high schools fielded 132 teams, with 16 of them competing for the first time.
A rookie team might not seem like a serious threat in a sophisticated competition like the FRC. But the FIRST game design committee tries to level the playing field by changing the competition each year. The list of allotted materials used in building the robots is tweaked, and the rules of the game are changed.
For instance, this year's game features a slick surface for the robots to maneuver on, mimicking the gravity on the moon's surface to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing (the competition was even called "LUNACYTM" this year). In addition, the robots had to haul payload trailers, with each team's robot competing to scoop up game balls and dump them into opponents' trailers. Veteran teams that had previously perfected their robots' performance on carpet "had to go back and redesign for a slick surface and for pulling a trailer," said Miller.
Volunteers mentor each team during the FRC's design, build and competition phases. Mentors include parents, teachers, engineers, inventors and scientists. Lori Gleason, a teacher at Milford High School and a nine-year mentor to the "Heroes of Tomorrow" team, provided a window into the process: "The engineers [from the General Motors Milford Proving Grounds] give me their drawings, and I help the students in my sub-group plan the best way to machine the given part." The HOT team is provided access to three-dimensional mills and lathes in the GM Milford machine shop. Through mentorship, "[The students] get to work with world-class professionals who inspire them to achieve what they may otherwise not even dream of," explained Gleason.
"We are so blessed to have the mentors that we have," said Megan Crowley, 17, a senior at Milford High School and head of the "chairman sub-group" for the Milford HOT team. "They really are able to take this experience to another level." Crowley has enjoyed a relationship with FIRST since the seventh grade, when she got involved in the FIRST LEGO® League. At the time, she was recovering from a broken toe, and her mother encouraged her to join. "I didn't have much say in the matter," recalled Crowley, "but I'm really glad that it happened."
Michigan students followed a different path to the FRC championship this year. While other U.S. and international teams qualified for the finals through one of nearly 40 regional tournaments, Michigan teams were part of a FIRST pilot program that allowed them to compete against each other on weekends in March and early April. "It's like 'March Madness,' but with robots," said Crowley. After a final state tournament, Michigan's best teams qualified to go directly to the FRC Championship in Atlanta.
More than 20,000 students, mentors, spectators, event volunteers, family members, corporate sponsors and invited guests packed the Georgia Dome each of the three days of the FRC championships. The 349 qualifying teams were randomly divided into four divisions named after famous scientists: Archimedes, Curie, Galileo and Newton. Teams within each division were also randomly grouped into three-team alliances. "Just like in the real world, teams work with and compete against one another," explained Miller.
In each division, the eight individual teams with the best records each chose two other teams to be part of their alliance, and the eight resulting three-team alliances competed to determine a division champion. The four division champion alliances then competed in the championship finals.
Milford's HOT team — along with teams from Illinois and California — belonged to the last alliance standing. "The HOT team has become the most decorated team during a single season in FIRST history," said Gleason. The team has won not just the FIRST Championship, but also the Michigan State Championship, the GM Industrial Design Award (twice), the Johnson & Johnson Gracious Professionalism Award and numerous other awards and accolades.
"FIRST Robotics is ... a varsity sport for the mind," FIRST in Michigan Director Francois Castaing told WWJ Newsradio 950 on April 19. "It is the only varsity sport where everybody becomes a pro."
The sports comparison seems apt, considering the FRC's competition fields, tournament-style organization, Georgia Dome venue and $9.8 million in scholarships. Competitors learn cooperation, leadership, creativity and problem-solving in real-world scenarios under the supervision of veterans in the field of engineering. "The team has a hard deadline and is working with limited time, resources and money," said Miller. "There are a lot of people who think FIRST is about kids building robots. Really, it's about FIRST and robots developing leaders who will solve the technological problems of the future."
 All four teams have Web sites. See www2.huronvalley.k12.mi.us/schools/mhs/activity/hot_team/index1.htm; www.thunderchickens.org/; www.trucktownthunder.com/; and www.247dabears.com/Home/tabid/36/Default.aspx, respectively.