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Zoe Henderson (L) and Ben Reed (R), members of Newport High School’s FIRST Robotics team.
Students build robots that must shoot frisbees through goals and climb up metal ladders.

As volunteer referee Fred Sutton gets ready to monitor another robotics match at the Century Link Events Center Thursday afternoon, he only chuckles when asked if he’s having a good time.

“Ohhhhhhhh, yeah. I wish I had this when I was in high school,” said Sutton, an engineer for a local company called Seametrics. “For me, I find this inspirational. You work in your career industry for awhile and you kind of get ho-hum about stuff. When you come in and see what these kids are able to do, it’s inspiring.”

Welcome to the annual FIRST Robotics Competition, where the adults are inspired by the students, and the students are inspired to compete, collaborate and perhaps one day become the world’s next Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos.

For the past six weeks, 64 teams from high schools around the state have built their own pre-programmed and remote-controlled robots from a standard “kit of parts,” designed to shoot frisbees through goals and climb up metal ladders. This weekend, they’ll compete against one another in hopes of advancing to the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) National Championship in St. Louis next month.

firstrobotics8You see, this is sport. The big-muscled athletes are replaced by teens that have passions for science, math and building awesome machines. The lessons and achievements kids get from team sports — whether it’s wearing matching uniforms or getting that competitive fire in their bellies — these FIRST students get all that and maybe even more.

firstrobotics23The 80-person team from Bellevue’s Newport High School even receives varsity letters for competing in FIRST, a non-profit founded by Dean Kamen, best known as the inventor of the Segway.

“We talked to our athletic director and explained how many hours we put into this, how dedicated you have to be, and how these competitions are like sports matches,” said Newport senior Zoe Henderson. “I don’t play sports, so it’s really cool to have a letter.”

The six weeks leading up to this weekend are by far the most intense — “Mountain Dew runs in our veins during that time,” says Henderson — but competing on a FIRST Robotics team is often a year-round commitment.

It’s almost like running a small engineering company. Every team needs programmers, designers, engineers, marketers — each part is essential to the success of a team.

These mini companies have arrived in Seattle this weekend all wanting to compete, and of course, win. But one of the cool parts of this whole thing is one of the pillars of FIRST: Gracious Professionalism.

As much as everyone wants to win, there’s a common theme among all the teams to help each other build the best possible robots.

“If you’re just going for yourself, it won’t be as fun and you won’t get that experience of helping other people,” Henderson said.

The teams spend Thursday inside the “PIT,” a massive area sorted into separate building stations. It’s here where students fine-tune their robots for competition and make any last-second changes. 

This is the "PIT," where teams repair and make last-second changes to their robots.
This is the “PIT,” where teams repair and make last-second changes to their robots.

Often times, a group will need certain tools, or another may ask for programming help. FIRST teams are expected to come to aid and provide assistance, regardless of competition.

“Everyone on and off the field is helping each other,” said Newport junior Ben Reed. “We all want each other to succeed.”

On top of the thrill of competition, FIRST members receive mentorship and advice from professionals that work at highly-respected technical companies in the area like Boeing and Microsoft.

The opening ceremonies at the FIRST Robotics competition in Seattle. Photo via Twitter @first_wa.
The opening ceremonies at the FIRST Robotics competition in Seattle. Photo via Twitter @first_wa.

“This is a pretty great opportunity for these kids to explore a lot of career options,” Sutton said. “They get access to people that have experience with everything from building airplanes and rocket ships to writing software.”

Consider this a test run for post-college life.

“I’ve been told that this is what it’s going to be like in the real world — working for a company, having to coordinate, all that,” Henderson said. “The communication and cooperation we do is going to help me learn skills that I will use the rest of my life.”

Some of these students may never get fist-pumps or backpats in their high school hallways after winning the big game last Friday. But it’s here inside the robot cages where they’ll be cheered on as champions by thousands of parents, friends, brothers, sisters and all other supporters. This is where their talent, their skill and their hard work are really celebrated.

Previously on GeekWire: World championship-bound robotics team learns life skills by designing and programming world-class robots

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