Kamen Unveils New Game at FIRST Competition at SNHU

Sunday, January 04, 2009
Union Leader

Kamen response to crisis: A little lunacy

By MIKE CULLITY

MANCHESTER – In the eyes of Bedford inventor Dean Kamen, solving the world's problems takes a little lunacy.

Yesterday at Southern New Hampshire University, Kamen unveiled Lunacy, the game for the 2009 FIRST Robotics Competition. More than 600 high school students and adult mentors attended the event, which was broadcast live via NASA TV and the Internet to 52 local kick-off events across the country.

Founded by Kamen in 1992, the annual FIRST competition challenges teams of student participants to design and build a robot from a common kit of mechanical parts. The competition aims to foster students' interest in science, engineering and technology, and to build problem-solving skills.

Amid the world's current challenges, the skills and knowledge the competition engenders are more in demand than ever, Kamen told participants in his keynote address yesterday.

"Why do we do FIRST? Because the world's a mess," Kamen said. "Read the news, look around you. ... Two-thirds of the people alive today, or 4 billion people, are living on less than $2 a day, and half of those are living on $1. You're the richest people in the world by far, and the world's a mess, and somebody's got to fix it."

The FIRST competition is about more than just building robots -- it's about developing people capable of creating solutions to the world's problems, building sustainable wealth and rebuilding the battered global economy, Kamen said.

"You can't confuse the real invention of wealth with this superficial movement of money, this shell game that's been played by bankers and the Wall Street crowd," he said after his speech. "It's time to get back to basics and invest in serious projects that will create serious wealth."

The competition's larger message is likely to resonate now more than ever, added FIRST National Adviser Woodie Flowers.

"The only silver lining to our economic and moral malaise is, society may be willing to listen," said Flowers, a mechanical engineering professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This year's challenge

With no instructions, nearly 1,700 student teams from the United States and 10 foreign countries will have six weeks to create robots to compete in Lunacy, a high-intensity game that this year will be played on a 54-by-27-foot low-friction field designed to simulate the moon's gravity, 40 years after the Apollo 11 spacecraft made the first manned moon landing.

Helped by professional mentors, the teams will prepare their robots to vie in regional events for 340 berths in the 2009 FIRST Competition Championship, scheduled for April 16-18 in Atlanta.

After yesterday's kickoff presentation in the SNHU Fieldhouse, Kamen unveiled the Lunacy playing field, which resembles a hockey rink. Participants from nine U.S. states, as well as from Brazil and Mexico, traveled to Manchester for a first-hand look.

"You get to walk on the field and see everything spatially, because it's hard to visualize when they only give you the specs," said Erik Cokely, a senior at the New Jersey Institute of Technology who is mentoring the Hightstown (N.J.) High School FIRST team.

Why they compete

Among the camera- and tape-measure-wielding participants at SNHU was a team from Bedford High School. The 40-student squad is taking its second FIRST competition seriously, giving corporate titles to its team leaders and planning to enter two regional competitions, the Granite State Regional in late February and the Philadelphia Regional in late March, team mentor Peter Murphy said.

The chance to learn outside the classroom attracted Bedford junior Matthew Silvia to FIRST.

"I've always been interested in hands-on learning," said Silvia, the Bedford team's chief mechanical engineer. "I like getting down in the shop and figuring out things through planning and trial and error."

The competition's teamwork appeals to Michael Dubreuil, a senior at Weare's John Stark High School and a four-year FIRST participant.

"Working with the mentors and engineers has been a really cool experience for me," said Dubreuil, an aspiring biochemist. "It's really being practical about solving a problem. That's what the real experience is."

And that experience is applicable to real-world problems, global or otherwise, said Jed Durant, a senior vice president of operations for Wilton fund-raising consultant PEP Direct and a mentor to the combined John Stark-Hopkinton High School FIRST team.

"If you don't figure out how to pull together, your product or service doesn't get out the door," he said.

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