Large-screen TV close-up images of wheels spinning, gears turning, and sparks flying—and deafening cheers of hyped-up high school students—provided the backdrop for a high-tech gathering of future scientists April 4-6.

Accompanied by the music of ‘NSync and the Backstreet Boys and stomping in the stands, 63 teams of high school students, teachers, technicians, and engineers piloted their robots in the United Technologies New England Regional FIRST Robotics Competition in New Haven, Conn.

“You can tell it isn’t a science fair,” Steve Prairie, a junior from nearby Rockville High School, said above the din.

Picture the popular television shows “Battlebots” and “Robot Wars,” only without the distruction, and you get the idea. Instead of trying to disable an opponent’s robot, two teams of students worked together to perform a specific task, while two opposing teams worked together to stop them.

The challenge was to use a student-built robot to put as many soccer balls in a container as possible and get the container into the goal area, while outman-euvering opponents’ robots.

Teams were given six weeks to design, fabricate, build, and ship their robots, said East Hartford High School teacher Chuck Nystrom. Each team began with a common set of materials.

The East Hartford High School team members included student technicians, engineering mentors, and “The Bulldog,” a plywood frame with a chain-drive transmission, ball pickup apparatus, and roller belt drive to roll the balls into a rectangular basket.

The Bulldog is radio-controlled by a computer link supplied by FIRST, which began the competition with 28 teams 10 years ago. This year, more than 20,000 students are participating in the FIRST Robotics Competition on more than 600 teams nationwide, as well as Canada, Brazil, and the United Kingdom—making it the largest competition of its kind.

FIRST, an acronym for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” was founded by Dean Kamen, who introduced the Segway human transporter project earlier this year. Kamen started the competition to introduce students to science, math, engineering, and invention.

Judging by the participants’ reactions, the program has been a rousing success.

“Where else can you see technology, science, and math being put to such exciting use?” Nystrom said. “As a teacher, I’m always looking for exciting ways to bring the subject into the classroom.”

Prairie, the Rockville High School student, said the program will “definitely have an influence” on his career choice. “It’s been nice to get hands-on training with engineers in this program,” he said.

Bruce Hockaday, an engineer at Pratt & Whitney, said the program reminds him of his high school days.

“I lacked direction when I left high school,” he said. “So now I try to catch kids who are just like I was.”

In addition to the New England event, regional FIRST competitions also were held April 4-6 in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Toronto, and Grand Rapids, Mich. In all, 17 regional competitions were held between March and April.

The East Hartford team was not among the winners in the April 6 regional event, but it qualified at another competition in March to compete in the national championship, the final and largest event of the competition.

The national event was scheduled to take place April 25-27 at Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla., featuring 288 teams. Schools interested in fielding teams for next year’s competition are encouraged to visit the program’s web site.

Related links:

FIRST Robotics Competition
http://www.usfirst.org/robotics