Originally created 03/29/03

Aiken school puts team in robot battle



DULUTH, Ga. - What could be called the Nerd Bowl has all the color, excitement, noise and drama of any athletic match, but the combatants are cold-blooded machines without an ounce of emotion.

Teams from 42 high schools across the South built robots for the two-day competition in hopes of graduating to the national contest in Houston next month, which has a $10,000 prize.

At the end of Friday's round, Aiken High School was in seventh place.

This is the first year for most of the teams competing in the Atlanta suburb, though the national contest is in its 14th year. Inventor Dean Kamen dreamed it up as a way to spark students' interest in science and technology. Mr. Kamen is the inventor of the Segway two-wheeled motorized transporter, a robotic wheelchair that climbs stairs, and a wearable medicine-infusion pump.

Mr. Kamen founded For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology to run the contests. The FIRST director for the South is Pattie Cook, who set out last year to find school systems in Georgia, South Carolina and neighboring states to let a high school compete.

NASA awarded 20 grants, including one to the Aiken team. But raising the $5,000 fee for the parts kit and extra money for travel was part of each team's assignment.

"If we can't find $5,000 next year, we're dead in the water," said Pat O'Neill, the pre-engineering teacher and Robotics Club adviser at Aiken. "And the kids are learning so much."

He said that the dozens of small contributors helped bring the community into the project along with the engineers from the Savannah River Site who coached the students.

South Carolina fielded 14 teams and plans to have 40 next year, adding schools in rural areas, said Bob Couch, the director of career and technology education for the S.C. Department of Education. The state is adjusting its curriculum to include the contest for pre-engineering students.

Today, the top 30 teams at noon will advance to the finals to determine the three teams going to the national meet.