Alpharetta High School students (from left) Varun Kashyap, 14, Nikhil Dasari, 15, and Rishab Seshadri, 15, were seconds away Saturday from the big reveal for this year’s FIRST Tech Challenge, a robotics competition founded by Dean Kamen, known for, among other things, inventing the Segway. (Photo: Ty Tagami/AJC)

Interest in robotics competition growing fast in Georgia

Interest in robotics appears to be growing in Georgia schools as more kids awaited the big reveal Saturday for this year’s FIRST Tech Challenge.

The competition for students was established three decades ago by prolific inventor Dean Kamen, perhaps best known for his two-wheeled Segway. Three years later, in 1992, 28 teams met for the first competition in a high school gym.

Now, there are more than four times as many teams in Georgia alone, which according to Steven Hovey, who led Saturday’s event at Kennesaw State University, is the fourth fastest-growing region in the world. FTC is for students from seventh grade through high school. Older students have their own league, and there are also leagues for younger kids.

Students build and program robots that perform defined tasks. Last year, for example, the FTC robots had to corral balls, which, given the way they roll around, was no small feat.

This year, the robots were given the challenge of erecting tall “buildings” using big Lego-like blocks.

“It’s a lot more simple than last year,” said Rishab Seshadri, 15. “It’s still going to be a hard challenge, though.”

He was awaiting the big reveal in a KSU auditorium with a couple of teammates — Varun Kashyap, 14, starting his first year on a team, and Nikhil Dasari, 15, who started with the FIRST Lego League in fourth grade.

Like many of the younger students, Nikhil got into the Lego league at that age because he liked building with the plastic blocks. He had to stop in middle school because there was no team.

Hovey said there were 162 Georgia FTC teams last year, up from 130 the year before. So far this year, there are 125, which is up 17% from this time last year and on a pace for 180 teams by season’s end, he said.

Despite Georgia’s fast growth, the state offers less support than, say, Texas. There, teachers get a stipend for coaching, which is rare here, Hovey said. Instead, Georgia schools rely on volunteer teachers and parents.

“The toughest part is finding coaches and mentors,” he said.

The acronym FIRST means “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” The idea is to give students hands-on exposure to careers in those fields, said Hovey, who is helping to lead Georgia’s program. They also learn business skills because they must market their teams.

After his dry spell in middle school, Nikhil was able to join one of several teams at Alpharetta High School (there is also a girls-only team there). He said he was eager “to get back in the game” of robotics.

“The reason I got drawn back into this is because I felt like I wanted to do something different than everyone else,” Nikhil said.

He said he wants to build something that changes the world.

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