Popular Mechanics

IT'S THE NIGHT before the big game, but you'd never guess it. The coach isn't screaming himself hoarse. No one on the team is butting helmets or blasting anthems or even looking nervous. Instead, three players sit around a low table, patiently discussing strategy. Working from a folder marked recon and a whiteboard filled with diagrams, they pore over scouting reports and analyze the probable outcomes of various tactics. One fidgets with a set of safety glasses and chuckles as he defines ideal conditions: " something that never happens. "

On a counter behind them, a pair of glittery pompons rests beneath a chart titled " The Dimensionless Numbers. " The room's atmosphere is somewhere between clubhouse and physics lab: one team member searches for a playbook while another measures tolerances with a set of calipers. Someone slips out to machine a spare part as the team's mascot-in-training weaves drunkenly around the room, learning to maneuver under the weight of a giant dog's head. However, their team isn't called the Huskies or the Terriers, but the Nu-Trons, and tomorrow they'll compete against teams with names like the Rambots, Hyper, and Techno Insanity.

High-school sports were never like this. But they are now, thanks to the United States Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (US FIRST), a competitive robotics league that wants to transform the way Americans think about science and engineering. The program was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, a successful, influential inventor from Long Island who was troubled by the way the sciences were perceived in popular culture. (Kamen's most recent project, a top-secret invention code-named " Ginger, " has provoked some of the most frenzied Internet rumor-mongering of the year.) Any kid could tell you what sneakers Michael Jordan wore, but who could name that year's Nobel Prize winners? How many Americans could name even one top-flight physicist or biologist? The fawning, nonstop veneration of athletes and entertainers not only undermined the prestige of researchers, Kamen thought, but also threatened to drain much-needed brainpower from labs and universities. Kamen and FIRST's other leaders conceived the high-school robotics league as a way to make the sciences alluring to young people by providing an emergency infusion of competitive excitement, thereby changing the culture from the bottom up.

The initial FIRST competition took place in New Hampshire in 1992, with 28 local teams competing. Since then, participation has mushroomed to more than 500 teams and 25,000 students. This year's final was broadcast on ESPN and sold out the 15,000-seat EPCOT Center in Florida. The groundswell of interest has forced people to ask whether lab coats and safety glasses may eventually overtake shoulder pads and cleats as the hallmarks of the high-school elite. Could an army of fired-up kids use remote-controlled robots to dismantle pervasive stereotypes? Could this be the revenge of the nerds?

Say what you will about robots, but they don't consider a $14 million contract a dis, talk about themselves in the third person, or consider a couple of sneaker commercials an "acting career."

CALL FIRST an anomaly or call it a social revolution, but whatever you do, don't call it a science fair. Competitors aren't building bridges from popsicle sticks; rather, they're designing robots that can perform complex tasks such as hurdling obstacles while withstanding collisions with their competitors. More important, the human competitors don't stand around like contestants at a dog show, waiting for a judge to come evaluate their entries. The guiding idea behind FIRST is to treat science as a team sport. This means practices and uniforms and cheerleaders, and a competitive intensity that you'd never think to associate with something as sterile as an engineering problem.

As everyone involved with the program insists on telling me, sometimes with near-missionary urgency, it's not the kind of thing you can ever really get until you see it. So convincing is their zeal that I end up following the Nu-Trons from their basement clubhouse-lab at Northeastern University into the frenzy of competition at a local tournament, the Battlecry at WPI.

The Thrilla in Manila it ain't. But I go partly for the novelty of watching a sport where robots are the center of attention, where inborn athletic talent plays no role whatsoever. Say what you will about robots, but they don't consider a $14 million contract a dis, talk about themselves in the third person, or consider a couple of sneaker commercials an " acting career. " Since the Nu-Trons are the defending national champs, I figure they can show me the game as it's meant to be played.

But I'm more curious about FIRST's attempt to change cultural stereotypes of the sciences. The program's supporters hope to pull off an image overhaul of the type more commonly undergone by philandering pols or Vicodin-addled celebs. Woodie Flowers, an engineering professor at MIT and national adviser to FIRST, describes the problem this way: " Societies get the best of what they celebrate. Take the Ted Williams Tunnel — a multibillion-dollar engineering feat named after someone who hit a rock with a stick. " Flowers ascribes pop culture's obsession with sex and violence to a " genetic hangover " from a time when aggression served an evolutionary purpose. " FIRST, " he says, " is an effort to try to play a different game, to have an aggressive competition without pain or destruction. " But how do you make square roots hip? What does it take to get a 16-year-old to give up the mall or the multiplex and spend an entire Saturday at a robot competition?

As I walk into the auditorium in Worcester, my first answer would have to be: a lot of noise. The scene in the bleachers feels like something between a pep rally and a very big bar mitzvah party. A DJ spins Britney, Backstreet, and all the sassy sound-alikes, mixing in vintage cuts from the Village People and the Pointer Sisters. A team of play-by-play announcers double as MCs, keeping spectators pumped up between matches. And pumped up they are, stomping and cheering, ringing cowbells, and making odd mooing sounds from homemade PVC didgeridoos.
A team of play-by-play announcers double as MCs, keeping spectators pumped up between matches. And pumped up they are, stomping and cheering, ringing cowbells, and making odd mooing sounds from homemade PVC didgeridoos.

About half the Nu-Trons are in the pit area, working out a problem that surfaced during the morning's first match. I sit up in the stands with the rest of the team and get a crash course in the game's fundamentals. The rules vary from season to season, forcing teams to keep confronting new challenges. In past years, robots have had to solve problems like ascending ramps, hanging from chin-up bars, and scoring baskets with rubber balls. This season's game awarded points for balancing robots or goal towers on a seesaw device. The one constant is that teams must build their robots from standard parts kits. Additional parts may be machined, or ordered from a catalogue, but these expenses are capped, and the final product can't exceed a certain weight or size.

Since today's match isn't part of the national tournament, which ended in April, the rules are slightly altered. Usually, a team is partnered with three others; the combined score of their " alliance " determines the final standings. The Battlecry, however, uses a more competitive two-on-two format that allows teams to obstruct opposing robots and even bombard the other team's goal to knock it over, which lowers the other team's score. But the overall game remains much the same: alliances score points by getting their balls into one of two goal towers, by placing a giant ball atop a tower, by balancing their robots or their tower on a seesaw bridge that divides the playing field, or by finishing the game with one of their robots in an end zone. This base score is multiplied if the alliance clocks out before the two-minute match elapses. Because they designed their robot for a different game, the Nu-Trons don't expect to win. Instead, they approach the competition as something like a spring-training game, a chance to test new tactics and break in their rookie players.

All of a sudden, my quickie introduction to robot strategy is interrupted by the MC's best ringmaster voice: " Are you ready? " Before I have a chance to answer " Not really, " a canned fanfare bursts from the PA and it's like some version of The Nutcracker staged in a Radio Shack after hours: the four inanimate robots come to life and begin scurrying around the carpeted playing field, which is divided at midfield by a row of barriers and seesaws. Each machine has two remotely stationed drivers, who stand behind a plexiglass divider and intently work the joysticks that control the robot's direction and operate its grasping arm. As soon as the drivers get the robots to drag the goal towers within range, their teammates form a kind of bucket brigade to ferry balls to a designated shooter, who stands on tiptoe and lobs balls over the partition toward the target. All this time the alliances' other robots are in the end zone, trying to pick up the giant balls.

Given the amount of commotion, I have to rely on the robots' color-coded disco lights to tell the Nu-Trons' Yellow alliance from the opposing Blues. Once the goals are full, the robots bring them out to midfield to try to balance them on the seesaw. The Blue bot struggles with its big ball, finally ditching it to go and help its partner balance by steadying one side of the bridge. When this succeeds, it races into the end zone before clocking out. Meanwhile, the Nu-Trons' bot has succeeded in grasping its ball and bringing it back to midfield, where its partner is struggling to balance. A crane-like extension lifts the ball up and over the goal tower, which teeters precariously as the escort-bot lurches back and forth. People in the stands yell out instructions, while Blue players begin firing their leftover balls at the tower, trying to topple it. Yellow's drivers desperately work their controls, only to throw up their hands in frustration as time runs out.
People wear technical sandals, Gore-Tex loafers; if their pants aren't riddled with cargo pockets, they unzip into shorts.

The other teams in the stands cheer anyway, and they keep cheering. They cheer when the scores are announced, they cheer when a Blink-182 song starts playing, they cheer when a cow-suited representative of a cow-themed team runs out in front of the field and begins shooting plush cow toys from a makeshift cannon. They make Up with People look like a grief-counseling workshop. It's almost as if they're cheering the simple fact that they're cheering. " And this, " one of the Nu-Trons shouts over to me, " this is nothing compared to Nationals. " Still, I can't help feeling like someone at his first baseball game, left to wonder how people can work up such a lather over something that seems so arcane.

WHILE THE next match gets under way, I walk over to the pit area to see what the other Nu-Trons are up to. Almost everyone I pass is fully equipped, begadgeted, ready for some as-yet-to-be-announced mission. People wear technical sandals, Gore-Tex loafers; if their pants aren't riddled with cargo pockets, they unzip into shorts. Safari vests bulge with walkie-talkies, cell phones, handheld camcorders. From belt loops dangle carabiners, from which dangle key chains, from which dangle tape measures. The pits themselves overflow with signs of design: collapsible, convertible, rechargeable devices; components that can be interlocked or interchanged and swapped in or out. The only things that haven't been engineered are the doughnuts that sit atop almost every tool chest.

About 10 of the team's three dozen active members stand around their robot, trying to correct a problem with the gears that control its grasping arm. The senior members are Northeastern students, but most attend four local high schools: Boston Latin, Brookline High, Catholic Memorial, and Milton Academy. Jim Benneyan, their coach, supervises the repair as he organizes the drivers for the team's next match.

Benneyan is a tenure-track professor at Northeastern's School of Engineering. Since he founded the Nu-Trons four years ago, he's had to juggle his coaching responsibilities with his classes and research, no mean feat considering that he puts some 2000 hours into the program each year. A shadow passes over his youthful features as he tells me about the personal cost of keeping the program alive, before going on: " Just to see the delta of the kids' experience coming in and going out is so powerful. This is the most foolish and fulfilling thing I've ever done. "

Unlike many of the other FIRST teams, the Nu-Trons lack a heavyweight corporate sponsor like General Motors or Gillette. Such companies (along with organizations like NASA) supply most of the program's funding, since one of its main goals is to interest young people in engineering careers. But these partnerships, although they provide valuable mentors, don't guarantee the hands-on involvement that many smaller teams offer. Students often don't get to fabricate many of the robots' key parts themselves. Even though the Nu-Trons have to spend a good deal of time fundraising, they seem to relish their role as a scrappy David to the better-funded Goliaths whom they defeated at this past year's final. More than one Nu-Tron proudly tells me the story of how they came from nowhere to upset Delphi, one of the top teams in the country.

What with the Nu-trons' dedication, their teamwork, and their good-natured trash-talking, you'd be hard-pressed to tell them from any other team. In fact, many are also varsity athletes, and bring with them some of the rituals of jock culture. Take Taki Michaelidis, who never competes without a bandanna that gave him the " sick mojo " he needed as the team's driver in this year's Nationals. You can even hear a certain cockiness toughen the voices of team members like Joe Canavan, who dismisses science clubs as " artsy-craftsy. "

But a mature respect for the competition tempers the killer instinct. When I ask Chadd Bailey if teams ever play dirty, he replies: " It's tempting to take out the other guy, but then you realize how much work goes into one of these robots. " He tells me that permanent rivalries tend not to develop because many players change teams upon graduation. Another Nu-Tron, Cristos Lianides-Chin, also indicates a larger sense of camaraderie, describing how his team will lend tools, advice, and even spare parts to anyone who asks.

This sense of a larger shared purpose is something often lacking in high-school and college sports — in part, perhaps, because few if any teenage baseball or hockey players will actually go on to play those sports professionally. Leigh Nathan was a tri-sport athlete in high school who chose Northeastern's engineering program specifically because of the Nu-Trons. When I ask her the difference between sports and FIRST, she points to the team's robot and responds: "I can do this for the rest of my life. Without FIRST, there's a very, very good chance I wouldn't be in engineering."

Nathan wasn't the only Nu-Tron "recruited" by FIRST. Her teammate Chris DiCarlo turned down Harvard for Northeastern, in part because he wanted to stay with the team. When it comes to finding a job, he tells me, he'll give priority to a company that's active in FIRST. And Nathan's teammates agree that the robot-building experience has affected them personally. Fellow Nu-Tron Akshay Ganju, who'll be a sophomore at Brookline High, says of his coach: "Jim's amount of effort is really something to look up to as an example of what persistence will bring you."

"When I ask her the difference between sports and FIRST, she points to the team's robot and responds: "I can do this for the rest of my life. Without FIRST, there's a very, very good chance I wouldn't be in engineering."

The Nu-Trons speak of one other role model, often in hushed tones and usually just by his first name — Dean. Kamen's celebrity flows partly from his larger-than-life reputation. A self-taught physicist who never graduated from college, he invented a ground-breaking portable infusion pump before the age of 20. Since then he has developed a wheelchair that can climb stairs and a machine that has revolutionized dialysis treatment. He's met with presidents and purchased an island off the coast of Connecticut that he declared to be independent of the US government. In January, the news that Kamen had signed a contract to write a book about his " Ginger " project set off a flurry of theorizing on the Internet. His proposal claimed that the invention would be " unlike anything that now exists. " Was it a transporting system? A power source? What horse meat is to piranhas, " Ginger " is to Web-heads. Today, no one knows anything for sure about the device, except that Kamen has met with top investors, including Amazon's Jeff Bezos. This record commands respect. Says Bailey, only half-kidding: " He's keeping people alive — his word is God. " But what equally impresses young people like Bailey is Kamen's conviction that you can do far more good in a lab than on a field. Bailey adds, " You can't change the world with a soccer ball. "

CAN FIRST change the world with robots and pompons? I honestly hope so, but I can also tell you that if it does, the revolution will not be televised. After a dozen matches, I can't shake the feeling that I'm watching someone play a live-action video game. The Nu-Tron drivers have a great time at the controls, and I'm sure you or I would too, but you could say the same about trout fishers or R/C car racers. The strategy is predictable, and the game's byzantine scoring makes it hard to know which team has even won until the scores are announced later. All in all, it feels less like a rodeo and more like a convention of mechanical-bull designers. It's not that robots don't bleed, but more that they don't play hurt, or brawl, or choke in the clutch. They do exactly what they're told to — no more, no less. They're Eastern Bloc weightlifters. They're the Yankees. They're robots.

Of course, this objection is totally beside the point. FIRST competitions aren't a spectator sport, but a goal for teams to attain and a reason to bring them together. This isn't to say that the Nu-Trons aren't into it, but as the day progresses, it becomes more and more evident that winning here doesn't mean a whole lot. In part, that's because the Battlecry is merely an off-season tune-up. But it's also because the important work happened before the team even showed up. No one's going around peddling facile lines like " Everyone's a winner. " No one has to.

As for whether FIRST makes engineering any more or less cool, the best indication is the shrug that I get from anyone I ask. The Nu-Trons couldn't care less about whether anyone else approves of what they're doing. They just do it.

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