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UNH Hosts FIRST Robotics District Championship

The Whittemore Center was filled with colorful mascots, singing along to “Sweet Caroline,” cheering fans, signs and T- shirts as 64 high school FIRST Robotics teams from across New England gathered to compete for a place at the world championship in St. Louis, Missouri, from April 26-29.

This district championship, which took place April 6-8, brought together teams that had been established for over 20 years, such as team 195; the Cyberknights from Southington, Connecticut, and teams with just under a year; such as the five-member Maine Central Institute Robotics team 6337 of Pittsfield, Maine.

This year, the theme of the competition was the framework Steamworks. Three team alliances had to compete to be the first to get their “airships” in the center of the arena to “fly” in three ways: build steam pressure by collecting fuel in the form of whiffle balls, start rotors by retrieving gears and bringing them to the human players in the “airships” and prepare for flight by getting their robots to climb a rope onto the “airships”.

Senator Maggie Hassan, Dean of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences Charles Zercher, UNH Provost Nancy Targett and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu spoke to the audience. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and supporter of getting students involved in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, Sununu stopped by to tell the participants about the value of what they were doing.

“We have industry here,” Sununu said, referring to the state of New Hampshire. “[Tech companies are] looking to hire you guys in a few years.”

FIRST Robotics was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, an engineer, inventor, and New Hampshire native, according to Kari Karwedsky of BAE Systems and chair of the Granite State division of FIRST. The arena got quite a surprise after the governor stepped back. Kamen himself made an appearance, shooting facts about FIRST to the audience.

According to Kamen, 86 countries around the world are involved with FIRST, the program gives $50 million in scholarships to its graduating students. These scholarships are accepted by over 200 universities. He also addressed the importance of having FIRST in schools. 

“FIRST needs to be in every school in this state,” Kamen said to Sununu.

According to Kamen, FIRST was started as a way to inspire children to pursue careers in STEM.

“Kids are told from a very young age that science, engineering and math is boring and hard and [they] can’t do it,” Kamen said. “There aren’t a lot of jobs in the NBA, there are millions of jobs in [STEM]…I’ll turn engineering and math into a sport…and they’ll get the skills they need to make careers for themselves.”

Brooks Payette, the communication/outreach manager for the UNH College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, is in charge of 150 volunteers ranging from UNH students to people in the STEM workforce. Individuals like Karwedsky were the ones who helped take some responsibility in the massive event.

FIRST stands for “For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology,” and this reigned true for many students involved with the championship this weekend.

While FIRST does inspire many students to study STEM subjects after high school, some use the experience they get from this program in other ways. Brian Petrucci, the lead data analyst for team 195, is planning on studying psychology. His position on his team entails the collection of information about other teams so that he “ensures that [they] have the best alliance possible.”

Meanwhile, the captain of the Windham Windups, senior Carina Savukinas, is going to college in Connecticut to study mechanical engineering.

“Going into high school, I had no idea I wanted to do anything with engineering,” Savukinas said.

The Force Team (team 1073 of Hollis/Brookline High School in Hollis, New Hampshire), the Cyberknights, and the Aluminum Falcons (team 2168 of Fitch High School in Groton, Connecticut) will be competing at the world championship in St. Louis.

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