Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Click. Whir. Beep. Cool.

Click. Whir. Beep. Cool.

WHEN Rich Press, a photographer, first saw a high school robotics competition, he thought, “In high school, I never came across anything like this, but if I had, it would have changed my life.”

Mr. Press was impressed with the students’ brilliance, but robotics culture thrilled him. “They turn the prevailing culture — where being smart isn’t cool, where girls don’t program computers, where inner-city kids don’t get many engineering scholarships — on its head. Here, these are the coolest kids in school.”

Robotics competitions are organized by a nonprofit organization called FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — which has its headquarters in Manchester, N.H. The competition, which began in 1989 with 28 teams, has grown to 1,300 teams nationally. With engineer mentors, teams of 10 to 20 students form in the fall to compete in local, regional and national competitions in the spring.

Each team starts with an identical robot kit and a challenge. This year, the robots were required to move large balls around a track to score points. The teams invented a wide array of devices for moving the balls: tongs, pincers, grapplers, scoops, even vacuum-powered suction cups.

Of the 64 teams competing in the Northeast Regionals last month at the Javits Center, New Jersey teams took all the field performance awards, but two New York City teams — the Warriors from Alfred E. Smith High School in the Bronx and the Harlem Knights of Frederick Douglass Academy and Rice High School in Manhattan — won Judge’s Awards, which recognize a team’s “unique efforts, performance, or dynamics.”

Everything about these competitions is photogenic — the game, the “pit” where robots are serviced, the referees and the judges. It is Mr. Press’s team portraits, however, that best tell these students’ story.

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