Gael Force is not one of your pretty-boy robots. Five feet tall, three feet wide, weighing in at 127 scrappy pounds, it features a boxy aluminum frame, 27 steel gears, 14 greasy sprockets, two toy-car motors, and battle-scratched body armor. In a world of increasingly cutesy automatons—think of Sony’s AIBO simulated dog—it has the visual appeal of a sump pump.
But on a sunny afternoon last April, Gael Force was eating the lunch of two attractive, color-coordinated robots on a small playing field in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. In the course of a two-minute contest, it gathered up and delivered six small balls, deftly placed a beach-ball-size sphere on a large tee, and with just 20 seconds left on the clock, reached up, grabbed, and hung from a 10-foot-high bar, winning the contest. “It went awesome,” exclaimed 18-year-old Joseph Parker, wheeling the robot back to the pit area for a tune-up.
Parker is one of 36 students from Clinton High School in Clinton, Massachusetts, who designed and built Gael Force as their entry in the First (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, an annual challenge that brings together hundreds of teams of junior high and high school technophiles from around the world. Using a standard kit of parts supplied by First, each student team must build a robot in six weeks that will outscore other robots in an elaborate game, the rules of which change every year. The teams compete in regional trials, and the winners advance to the nationals each April to jointly test their engineered metal. Gael Force’s impressive performance at the Atlanta nationals had advanced the team to the quarterfinal round, now just two hours away.
“Oh, my God, we won in like the last two seconds!” cried team member Kate Murray, 17, back in the pit. “I feel like we just won the championship!”
Murray, Parker, and the rest of the Clinton team are following a well-oiled track. Clinton High was one of the 28 schools in the first First competition in 1992; the team won in that inaugural year and has since become something of a tournament darling. The surprise is that Clinton, which routinely smacks down affluent schools in these competitions, is not full of college-bound kids from fancy neighborhoods; it is full of everyday kids whose parents work in blue-collar jobs. More important, First is doing what it was designed to do at schools like Clinton—drastically alter the career paths of students. Fifteen years ago, maybe three Clinton graduates a year went on to pursue a technical or engineering career; now, about 20 do so. In 2003, for the first time in the school’s recent history, a Clinton grad went to MIT.
During a break in the robotics action that afternoon, Michael Mullinax, a Clinton sophomore, considered other trajectories he might have taken without First to focus on: “I really think I would have been a slacker. I could have been someone with no motivation to do much of anything. But this shows me where hard work can get you. I’m totally hooked.”
Brad Kulis, a senior and the pit leader responsible for tweaking Gael Force in preparation for its pending quarterfinal challenge, found some amazing grace in the program: “I was just lost. Now engineering is it.”
First is the brainchild of Dean Kamen, the renowned inventor of the Segway scooter, who conceived the competition in 1989 in an attempt to make engineering cool among teenagers. “Societies get what they celebrate,” Kamen told me in April 2003. We sat in a skybox at Reliant Stadium in Houston, overlooking that year’s First nationals—a hullabaloo of gadgetry and unbridled teen energy set to throbbing pop music piped in over the stadium’s speakers. “Most people have already decided by age 12 that they are not smart enough to be engineers. During the golden decade, from ages 7 to 17, we need to encourage people to celebrate the things that will improve this country and culture.”
The numbers support Kamen’s concern. In 1975 the United States ranked third among nations surveyed in the share of 18- to 24-year-olds receiving engineering and natural science degrees. By last year, the nation had plummeted to 17th. The slide has long aggravated Kamen, who looked to sports for a model to reverse the decline. “I realized that for a relatively small amount of money, we could create an event that will compete for the attention of kids on the same basis as athletics.” He decided to “create a Super Bowl of smarts.”
Similar efforts had been tried before. Kamen’s breakthrough was his direct appeal to corporate America for serious manpower and money. “I called the companies that do world-class engineering and said, ‘We will make your guys the Michael Jordans of science and invention.’ ” As president of DEKA Research & Development Corporation, Kamen had enormous credibility. His 35,000-square-foot New Hampshire house features two helicopters, a steam engine in the foyer, and a softball field with lights. Kamen says corporations quickly realized that supporting First was an investment rather than charity. The kids from Clinton High serve as a good example: More than 30 First competitors have ended up working for Nypro, the plastics manufacturer that sponsors the hometown team.
Meanwhile, the kids love it. The program has grown wildly in 14 years, and today it involves 1,000 high schools and more than 23,000 students. A junior high version, called the First Lego League, in which students ages 9 to 14 build robots out of plastic bricks and compete in a tabletop challenge, has also taken off.
As Kamen rolled away on his Segway—he goes everywhere on it—I wandered, amazed, on the floor of the Houston stadium. It was a gonzo-chic celebration complete with costumes, face paint, nutty booth displays (for some reason, stuffed monkeys were a recurring motif), raucous music, and the excitement of a football game, all in the service of sophisticated engineering. Shouting over the din, kids in the pit area showed off complex transmissions, photoelectric tracking, and even inertial guidance systems on their robots. Several made the point that at First the emphasis is on “gracious professionalism” rather than winning; teams routinely lend labor, parts, even whole robots, to one another.
“At the Lone Star Regional, one team’s robot was shipped upside down,” said Tonya Scott, an adult mentor to the team from Oklahoma’s Ponca City High School. “It arrived in a thousand pieces. Every team in the building converged on that pit to fix it.”
I strolled on, turning left at the Lost in Space robot, right at the guy dressed like a hammerhead shark, then stumbled across the Clinton High team for the first time. Most other teams had a theme: hard hats, love beads, purple hair. Not the Clinton delegation. Matching green T-shirts was as wacky as they got. But there was a giddy joy in the Clinton High pit. While other teams emitted a positive vibe, this one was in engineering ecstasy, constantly—compulsively—tinkering with their robot between matches. The diligence and devotion paid off: Their robot got the better of powerhouse NASA-coached robots before failing in the divisional semifinals to a formidable bot backed by both DaimlerChrysler and General Motors.
“We’re having so much fun, it’s awesome,” said Kate Murray, whose father, mother, and brothers were active in First. “It gets better and better every day with every match.”
It’s been a lousy half century for Clinton, Massachusetts. Located 50 miles west of Boston on the south branch of the Nashua River, with a population of some 13,000, Clinton was once a booming textile hub; the carpets of the Bigelow Carpet Company once graced the White House and the SS Titanic. But the business of making rugs—not to mention tweed, lace, shoes, and wire fencing, all of which rolled out of Clinton by the ton early last century, slipped away to China and India. The Bigelow plant closed in the 1940s; today its massive redbrick facade dominates a fraying downtown of pizza parlors and discount stores.
Industry hangs on in the form of Nypro, a plastic-parts manufacturer that has filled the old Bigelow shell with gleaming machines that spit out pens, medical tubing, and cell phone cases. After hours, the company turns over its machine shop to the First students from Clinton High. With Nypro engineers as mentors, the students gather every night and weekend from December to April, planning, hammering, bolting, testing, and refining their dream machine. I dropped by one Saturday in February—prototype day.