By Andy Choi
As a part of its incentive for student participation in science, technology and mathematics with a focus on robotic technology, NASA is providing up to $20 million over the next five years to support a national program.
The funding is part of a cooperative agreement with the Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), a non-profit organization in Manchester, N.H. FIRST provides students the opportunity to interact with government, industry and university experts for hands-on, realistic exposure to engineering and technical professions.
"This is the largest NASA-funded student program geared toward robotics activities," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "For the next five years, approximately 25,000 students across the country will not only learn from our nation's best and brightest, but also compete and have fun at the same time."
The major event of the program is the annual FIRST Robotics Competition. For the approximately 45 regional competitions, teams of high school students will have six weeks to build a robot using identical robot part kits. The dimension and weight limitations and other technical restrictions have been predetermined, but teams can decide the look and function of the robots. The regional competitions culminate in an international championship in April.
In the competition, teams compete in an area the size of a small basketball court. Each team's robot works to accomplish a task, while preventing its opponent from doing the same, which means the robots are required to have offensive and defensive capabilities. The robots must also be sturdy enough to withstand the frequent contact between the machines.
"This program has had a direct impact on our ability to mentor U.S. students and help them consider technical careers," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Supporting this program is critical to developing scientists and engineers for future U.S. space exploration."
NASA's Robotics Alliance Project (RAP) solicited proposals from non-profit and educational institutions to design and administer a robotics outreach competition. RAP, which is sponsored by NASA's Science Mission Directorate and managed from NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., competitively selected FIRST from the candidates.
"In addition to financial support, there is considerable time investment and commitment on the part of the NASA engineers and scientists who work with the students," said Solar System Program Executive Dave Lavery of NASA Headquarters.
In the past 16 years, the RAP has issued approximately $40 million to academic and non-profit organizations across the nation to stimulate intellectual capability in fields related with robotics engineering. All 10 NASA centres participate in the RAP by contributing technology expertise, funding and other resources.
NASA is the largest organization involved with FIRST and has participated since 1995. In 1999, NASA and FIRST signed a memorandum of agreement to cooperatively expand the availability of technology development, education and inspiration programs to students throughout the country. U.S. entrepreneur Dean Kamen founded FIRST in 1989 to encourage youth to become leaders in science and technology.