ECU hosts kickoff event for international robotics competition

Nearly 500 high school students from across North Carolina and as far away as Virginia and South Carolina met in excitement Jan. 4 at East Carolina University to get a first glimpse into the 2014 FIRST Robotics Competition.

More than 2,700 robotics teams made up of 70,000 high school students around the world viewed the live NASA-TV broadcast and webcast, which was shown at ECU in Hendrix Theatre. ECU was one of 92 host sites, and it’s the first time the competition has launched east of Raleigh. The day also included the delivery of parts kits to each visiting team, and the chance to get started on their robot design with the help of ECU Department of Engineering faculty and community mentors.

“Part of our university’s mission is to provide service and opportunities to citizens in the eastern region of the state and this event does that,” said organizer Evelyn Brown, an ECU engineering professor.

“We also believe many of these students who participate in robotics competitions are suited well for our College of Technology and Computer Science majors: computer science, construction management, engineering, and technology systems. Exposing them to our campus may help them choose ECU or simply choose to seek additional education after high school.”

FIRST founder Dean Kamen aims to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. He founded the not-for-profit public charity in 1989. Since its inception, FIRST – meaning For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology – has grown from 28 teams in a New Hampshire high school gym to the 2,700 teams competing worldwide.

Every year, the teams get a new game challenge for competition. This year’s challenge is called Aerial Assist and is played by two competing alliances of three robots each on a flat field. The objective is to score as many balls in goals as possible during a two-and-a-half-minute match. The robots are required to work together with other robots, each designed and built by different teams.

The challenge encourages “coopertition” – a term coined by FIRST. Coopertition is “displaying unqualified kindness and respect in the face of fierce competition. It is founded on the concept that teams can and should cooperate with each other even as they compete.”

Pitt County high school students have competed in the FIRST Robotics Competition since 2008. Bill McClung, an engineer at PotashCorp in Aurora, heads up the team as lead mentor and coach. The Pitt Pirates have grown from just a few students to almost 45 on the team now. This year’s team includes students from all six high schools in the county. Like all FIRST participants, the team will have six weeks to design, build and plan how to their robot can be the most successful in the competition.

The Pitt Pirates will travel to Raleigh in mid-March to compete in the first of two regional events. How they fare there will determine their ability to compete at the international level this April.

“It’s a true taste of the real world,” McClung added. “The competition requires students to work together. Some students who understand calculus may not be able to turn a screwdriver as well or operate a lathe. We have a wide variety of students and teamwork is a large part of the challenge.”

More information about the FIRST Robotics Competition is available online at

-by Margaret Turner