Gracious Professionalism Triumphs at NC FIRST Robotic Competition

Laura Schoppe (far left) and the other judges congratulate the novice NC team during Friday’s awards.

What a fantastic time I had being a judge at the 2010 North Carolina Regional Tournament of the FIRST Robotics Competition this past weekend! Not only was it a first-class event that was incredibly well run, but I was inspired and invigorated to see such “gracious professionalism” at work among the high school students participating.

My hat’s off to the organizers of this event, the first tournament to be held in North Carolina. Everything was clearly laid out for me and the other judges, which made it a pleasure to participate. Everything at NC FIRST went like clockwork. It was nothing short of amazing given the magnitude of the event.

Laura Schoppe speaks with Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway.

But as my colleague Danielle noted in her post about being a robot inspector, the organizers mostly should be commended for successfully fostering gracious professionalism and creating a competitive yet positive, fun, and collegial atmosphere.

The structure of the “Breakaway” competitions, which resembled a soccer game (check out the game animation video here), was brilliant:

  • Three teams of students were randomly assigned to an alliance for each round, which provided a disincentive for teams to trash their competitors since they could be allies in the next round.
  • Individual teams got extra points when the score between the two alliances was close, which motivated the teams to make sure others were doing well and discouraged clobbering or humiliating the other alliance.
  • For the final round, in which teams were able to choose their alliance-mates, teams were exceedingly polite as they “cordially invited” other teams to join them and as those teams “graciously accepted” the invitations.

So how did this structure manifest itself? Did opponents truly collaborate? Absolutely! I saw kids going to different booths to help other teams solve software problems or fix an issue with the controller or even share a spare part to solve a mechanical problem. I saw robots that were overturned during the competition get righted by their opponents. In the final round, two robots got stuck to each other and neither could move, another robot left what it was doing to knock them apart so they could continue competing.

As the organizers described it: “FIRST redefines winning for these students because they are rewarded for excellence in design, demonstrated team spirit, gracious professionalism and maturity, and the ability to overcome obstacles. Scoring the most points is a secondary goal. Winning means building partnerships that last.”

Indeed, this was achieved. Congratulations to all of the students participating and to the NC FIRST personnel. And thanks for the opportunity to participate in such a fantastic event. I hope to see more N.C. engineers and scientists, especially women and minorities, turning out as volunteers and judges in 2011 to help encourage our future.

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Posted by Laura Schoppe

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