Easy to print version

Leagues Ahead, Technically Speaking
By Amy Yelin

Last spring, a group of girls in Rochester, N.H., decided that they wanted to build a robot out of Legos. Charlotte Troddyn, the director at their youth organization, Girls Inc., didn't know what they were talking about. "They told me that they wanted to form a FIRST Lego League team," she recalls, "like they had seen on 'Zoom.'"

Fortunately, someone had a phone number for Kristen Kelso '07. Kelso is one of 13 members of UNH's Robotics Club, a group that provides volunteer mentors for FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen. (See a story about Kamen's Pettee Medal award on page 42.)

FIRST's goal is to motivate young people to pursue careers in science, technology and engineering and also to help them build self-confidence and life skills. For high school students, there is an annual robotics competition, and for children ages 9-14, a Lego League competition. Since 1992, UNH has supported FIRST by co-sponsoring and hosting events and providing faculty and student mentors.

"In only a few weeks of working with their UNH mentors, our girls were flipping open their laptops, learning programming, creating robots that could actually pick something up," says Troddyn. "Now I have 11-year-old girls telling me they want to be engineers."

In November 2004, the "WildKatz" were one of the few all-girl teams to compete in a Lego League competition in Manchester, N.H., where they won a judge's award.

At St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Dover, N.H., senior Sam Gilbert and his team are preparing for their second year in the FIRST Robotics regional competition. While the Lego League is considered the little league of the competition, FIRST Robotics is the big leagues, with the opportunity to compete in a national tournament and earn scholarship money.

Gilbert, who has earned the title Head Systems Engineer, says the competition is a lot of fun. "You get to problem-solve, learn about engineering and build something from the ground up." At last year's regional competition in Manchester, N.H., the St. Thomas team won an award for Rookie Team That Performed Most Like a Veteran.

"With FIRST, everyone wins," says UNH's Brad Kinsey, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering who helps mentor the team. "The high school students get exposed to engineering and all aspects of running a business, and the UNH mentors get to see their classroom learning applied to the real world."

Return to UNH Magazine Campus Currents