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Robot Builders Come to Life for FIRST Battle

Robots have taken over New York this weekend. Don't worry, though: High school students are behind the controls.

Teams of them have been burning the midnight oil -- tinkering with transistors, massaging motors and more -- and working out last-minute problems. And this weekend more than 60 high school teams are competing in the annual FIRST Robotics regional championship in New York City.

Sixty-six teams will compete at the Jacob Javits Convention Center for the chance to participate in the FIRST Robotics national championship, held at the end of April in St. Louis.

The teams are made up of 14- to 18-year-olds and have been dedicating weekends and after-school hours to develop and work on their robots, even organizing scrimmages against local competitors. The year-round competition has caught the eye of Black Eyed Peas star Will.I.Am and President Obama, and it has even inspired a book, “The New Cool.”

Participating in the 20th season of what the FIRST Committee calls “the varsity sport for the mind,” competitors will put their teamwork, intelligence and patience to the test as they form teams of up to 50 students working to create the ultimate robot. 

This year's competition -- titled Logo Motion -- has robots accomplishing certain tasks, like putting objects on pegs or scaling a pole. Teams, which control the robots remotely, face off in a playing field. Then it's a race for points as each robot must accomplish the tasks while defending themselves from attackers. The object is to gather the most points at the end of the 2 minute, 15 second match.

Teams designed their robots with elements like lateral movement to let them climb walls, extendable and retractable arms to place objects on pegs and thrusters to deflect attackers. 

Click here to see these robots face off

While sports buffs may consider the ultimate goal to be a championship trophy, FIRST directors have established six different categories for the teams to compete in, ranging from style to accuracy. And while there may be only one overall winner, FIRST is about more than just plaques and awards.

“The robot is a small part of it,” FIRST New York Regional Director Patricia Daly told FoxNews.com. Teams consist of up to 50 members, who had six and a half weeks to build their robots. The rest of the year was spent on development, fundraising, building websites and more.

The Megaldons are just one of those teams, made up of students from John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, New York. 

Their coach, Filippo Dispenza, told FoxNews.com that the program is “phenomenal for the students here. It’s not just your typical basketball or baseball -- it’s using your brains and your minds and doing it all in a hands-on way.” As far as the chemistry of the team this year, Dispenza said, “the majority of them are seniors this year, so you see a much tighter bond because they want to do the best they possibly can. They want to leave a legacy.”

“People are excited: Kids love it, the adults love it -- the thing you hear most is the students love it,” Daly said. 

During the challenges, teammates can walk around and scout out the competition to see who has the better defense or offense -- and take pointers as to how to improve their robot for the competition.

Throughout the games teams have a chance to form a three-way alliance, where Daly notes the importance of working with others. “I have seen competing teams share parts,” Daly noted, a part of her job that she values most. Seeing students from all over work together? “That’s what you walk away with,” she said.

For some students this competition has changed their lives, or inspired them to choose a career path -- an important effect, given continuing reports of the U.S. falling behind other countries in math and science.

Bradeis University’s Center for Youth and Communities conducted a survey of FIRST students and non FIRST students and found that FIRST students are more than three times as likely to major in engineering, more likely to expect to achieve a post-graduate degree, and more than twice as likely to pursue a career in science and technology. FIRST students are nearly four times as likely to pursue a career in engineering, the study noted.

There could be another reason the competition remains so popular among the students, however. 

“Robotics is popular not just because of practical applications like self-driving cars, but because it captures the imagination of both scientists and the public,” Henry Kautz, president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, told FoxNews.com.

“For the general public, robotics represents the ultimate possible achievement of technology -- a new kind of man-made life -- and all that could be exciting or frightening about that prospect," Kautz said.

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