A student competitor on the Highlander Robotics team works on a circuit board for a robot.
A week into 2023, young roboticists from New York to New Delhi got the news they’d been waiting for: the theme for the new season of the premier international robotics competition for kids 14 to 18.
The contest, which culminates in April’s highly competitive world championship in Houston, is sponsored by For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, a nonprofit promoting science, engineering and technology education. When FIRST robotics season kicks off, participating teams get strict rules — everything from sizing to scoring to robot restrictions — for building an industrial-size bot ready to battle a crowded field of like-minded machines.
The high schoolers receive a season-specific kit of parts to get started: screws, bolts, pneumatic tubing, battery plates, bumper brackets. And they get limited time and resources.
This year’s “game,” dubbed Charged Up, tasks more than 3,300 teams with conceiving, designing and building a bot that addresses challenges related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal No. 7 — to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
“By encouraging FIRST participants to think about future energy sustainability, we’re also empowering them to be the next generation of leaders and innovators, tackling the world’s toughest challenges,” the organization says of this year’s Charged Up theme.
The remotely controlled robots, which aren’t allowed to exceed 140 pounds (around 64 kilograms), score points by picking up and placing cones and cubes as they navigate a grid. The competitions meld the high-octane charge of competitive sports with the focused brain power of engineering. FIRST likes to call it “the ultimate sport for the mind.”
This year’s competition will draw kids from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the Dominican Republic, India, Israel, Mexico, Poland, Turkey and the US.
So how do busy high schoolers balance the rigors of building a robot with homework, college applications, social demands of teendom and, in some cases, devastating natural disasters and war?
I checked in with one team near me, Highlander Robotics, to find out what it takes to shepherd a robot from concept to fully functioning, competitive machine. The student-led group, also known as Team 8033, started in 2019 with 11 students working out of a mentor’s garage and now has more than 50 members from school districts around the San Francisco Bay Area. Twenty experienced mentors help guide the young innovators as they build and program for hours at a time — sometimes 12 or more over weekends and full days during school breaks — in a lab at Piedmont High School east of San Francisco.
Behind the Scenes With a Teen Robotics Team Aiming for Glory
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“Beyond equipping young people with workforce-ready STEM skills, FIRST teaches students about resilience,” said Chris Moore, the organization’s CEO. “FIRST is a robotics community where kids can find a place to belong, and a place to fail safely; making mistakes and learning from them is a critical part of the overall learning experiences we provide.”
Last year, Highlander Robotics landed at the world championship with its plucky pal Selkie, a speedy wheeled robot with flashing LED lights that can twirl and shoot balls into a hoop. Team 8033 ended up losing its championship semifinal by only six points in a close elimination round and hopes to get even closer to victory with its 2023 model, Paddo the Frog.
But there are hurdles on the road to Houston, where some 600 teams are expected to compete.
Scroll through our gallery to see Highlander Robotics members in action, and get a sense of what other robotics teams around the world likely are up to as the whirlwind of tournament season kicks off.