A FIRST peek

Whiz kids and their creations were the attraction at Nashua High School’s north campus Thursday night as about 400 people turned out for the unveiling of some local entries in this year’s FIRST robotics competition season.

Members from eight high school teams and their faithful supporters filled the school’s auditorium to view the robots whir, grind and bump across the stage as their creators explained the finer workings of the machine.

Alvirne, Nashua, Merrimack, Bishop Guertin, Hollis/Brookline, Pembroke, Manchester Memorial and Manchester Central high school students, many proudly wearing their team names on brightly colored T-shirts, whooped and cheered on their fellow junior engineers as the silver contraptions performed stunts in public for the first time.

FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, and founded by inventor Dean Kamen, began the robotics competition about a decade ago in New Hampshire with 28 teams.

The competition now includes close to 900 teams of high school students from almost every state in the United States as well as Brazil, Canada, the United Kingdom and Mexico.

Thursday night’s unveiling was just an early taste of what people can expect from some of 20 high school teams expected to compete at this year’s Granite State Regional FIRST Robotics Competition on March 5 and 6 at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, according to John Bugeau, BAE Systems Information & Electronic Warfare Systems director of mechanical engineering and host of the ceremony.

Twenty-six such regional competitions will happen in the coming months leading up to a world championship this spring at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

BAE Systems in Nashua, which works directly with Merrimack and Nashua high school students on their robotic projects and helps to sponsor eight other schools, sponsors the March regional.

The company has been involved with the students for more than a decade, said Bugeau, who has headed the company’s FIRST program for four years.

“And the reason we do it is simple, we have community outreach programs and this one just fits,” he said.

“It advances youth specifically in the areas of science, technology and math and we are a high-tech company, and it also gets our employees involved.”

Many of the kids have been working nonstop on their robots since getting their kits and the rules for this year’s competition on Jan. 10.

“I counted one week and it was like 60 hours outside of school,” said Nashua High School senior Sean Langolier, team leader for the approximately 70-member team Wild Cards.

While Wild Cards’ robotic silver platform zipped across the stage, Langolier, a mechanical engineer on the project, explained to the applauding audience how the team had souped-up the transmission on its robot by adding a custom gear-box.

Langolier, who is in his third year with the program and who has acquired an internship at BAE from his experiences so far, said besides the obvious opportunities he has gained toward his future goal of becoming a mechanical engineer, he has also gained other experience such as public speaking.

Many parents attended the unveiling event in support of their hopeful future engineers.

John Vancor of Nashua said he didn’t know much about the program when his 17-year-old son, Tom, a junior at Nashua High School, became involved last year, but soon became a huge supporter, especially after attending last year’s Granite State Regional competition.

“I didn’t expect the excitement,” Vancor said.

“The teams get very, very excited, but it is a very positive competition.”

Vancor, a civil engineer, said in addition to the design and other high-tech experience his son has gained, the program has offered his son valuable teamwork and networking experience.

The family even upgraded its computer so Tom Vancor could use the design software provided by BAE, he said.

“This is something he has really gotten into; it has captured his imagination and there is no doubt that it is feeding into where he wants to go in his life.

“This is a great opportunity for him. I am an engineer, but I didn’t have anything like this.”

Tom Vancor, who has been working on the design portion of his team’s robot, said this year’s challenge of manipulating rubber balls is more difficult than last year’s challenge, in which the robots were required to pick up and manipulate rubber bins.

“The rules are much more challenging,” he said.

Although many of the robots were not finished, and often unable to complete some of the tasks required for the coming competitions, Bugeau said the event was a helpful trial run for the students.

“It kind of gives them something to shoot for to accelerate their design and their build cycle so that they have something to show in reality and then they have a week to perfect everything,” Bugeau said.

“I can tell you one thing, a week from now when they ship these robots everyone of them will be very, very competitive.”

Stephanie Hooper can be reached at 594-6413 or hoopers@telegraph-nh.com.