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Robotics program a FIRST step toward technology careers

The youngest member of the Chestnut Hill Academy-Springside School robotics team shares common ground with internationally renowned physicists. Jeffrey Ng, 15, the team's programmer, works with the same tools used by scientists to study the effects of the Big Bang and the origins of the universe.

The youngest member of the Chestnut Hill Academy-Springside School robotics team shares common ground with internationally renowned physicists.

Jeffrey Ng, 15, the team's programmer, works with the same tools used by scientists to study the effects of the Big Bang and the origins of the universe.

"The programming software they use . . . is the same language that powers our robot," said Peter Randall, Chestnut Hill Academy's director of technology and robotics program mentor. "Our students are learning real-life skills as they apply to the subjects they're learning in the classrooms."

Throughout the region, high schools are adding FIRST robotics to encourage the study of engineering and related fields and participate in regional and national competitions. FIRST means "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology."

This school year, the program was offered in 29 area high schools, up from 25 in 2006. A nonprofit based in Manchester, N.H., FIRST simultaneously encourages competition and collaboration - it even asks participants to help opponents, simulating the ideals of a professional scientific environment, where an answer is more important than the identity of the person who finds it.

Research by FIRST shows students who participate in robotics are more likely to attend college, obtain internships, achieve postgraduate degrees, and volunteer in their communities than counterparts who do not.

The Chestnut Hill Academy-Springside School robotics program, which began seven years ago in a closet, now has its own facility, a 1,600-square-foot laboratory in Chestnut Hill's new Rorer Center for Science & Technology.

That is where the 24-student team constructed Taz, the cylindrical sweeper that took third place among 350 teams at April's national championship in Atlanta.

Showing off what Taz could do, the students said they had learned that their high school extracurricular activity connected with work being done in the real world.

At this year's nationals, for example, the event floor was built to simulate the low gravity on the moon, forcing teenagers to overcome dilemmas faced by scientists studying outer space.

"You have a generation of kids coming up that will be able to work for NASA," said Jack Anthony, 17, of Flourtown.

The high school programs thrive largely because of teachers such as Randall and Bob Ervin, who are also volunteers in the after-school Chestnut Hill-Springside program. At other schools, professional volunteers share with students their own expertise in engineering, science, and technology. At Mount St. Joseph Academy, the team moderator, Mark Paviglianiti, is the director of quality assurance at Merck & Co. His daughter, Laura, is on the team.

The courses and competitions, however, are not only for students who dream of becoming nuclear physicists.

Chestnut Hill-Springside team captain Charlie Frank, 18, of Wyndmoor, is entering a five-year degree program with Colby College and Dartmouth College in the fall as he works toward his goal of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

Tim Bailey, 17, of Gwynedd Valley, hopes to become an industrial designer. "I like designing things. I like art. I'm interested in ergonomics," he said matter-of-factly.

Despite diverging ambitions, students such as Frank, Bailey, and Rose Donahue, 16, of Philadelphia, who are involved in other extracurricular activities, still find unique value in their FIRST experience.

Donahue, a two-sport athlete in volleyball and crew at Springside School, helps build in the lab but works primarily as a scout during competitions, seeking alliances and making face-to-face agreements with teams that initially were opponents.

"I am competitive with my sports, and this is varsity, too, but it's a different mentality," Donahue said. "On sports teams, you work specifically with your team, but in FIRST you also work with the teams you're competing against. You want people to succeed."

It's that philosophy that has helped FIRST grow in the Philadelphia region since 1999, when Carol Kauffman, a teacher who is now regional director, first brought the program here.

The Chestnut Hill-Springside team - which is sponsored by Vulcan Spring & Manufacturing Co., Vectrix Corp., and the schools themselves - has lent inventory and surplus parts to Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster.

Temple University, which hosted this year's Philadelphia regional competition, sponsors George Washington High School in the Northeast.

Sponsorship is necessary because it costs $6,000, for example, to register for a regional competition and obtain the robot's parts.

While each program that registers receives the same parts, a team is also allowed to spend up to $3,500 extra on its robot.

In addition to sponsorship from companies that hope to hire these bright young minds, 114 U.S. colleges and universities - including Drexel and Temple Universities - offer scholarships exclusively to students involved with FIRST.

Drexel, a FIRST partner and the largest sponsor in the Philadelphia region, annually awards up to five $8,000 scholarships to its College of Engineering for the duration of an incoming freshman's undergraduate career.

Temple, which sponsors Upper Darby High School as well as George Washington, gives up to four $2,500 scholarships each year, good for four years of undergraduate study.

The result is a web of schools and sponsors exposing students to a new kind of sport, just the kind of education that FIRST president Paul Gudonis envisions.

"My father, who was an immigrant to this country, said to me, 'Education is your ticket in America,' " Gudonis said in an interview.

"Unfortunately, too many young people today haven't heard these words of wisdom . . . especially inner-city kids. . . . We want to offer them a sport where everyone can turn pro."