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January 24, 2013 12:10 am


Locust Grove Middle School Robotics coach Emily Driver works with Team Equinox's Franklin Farrel, Christian Jones and Ivy Huff to prepare their robot for Saturday's event.


With recently published statistics showing that U.S. students rank only 25th in math and 17th in science against other countries, many people are talking about what can be done to increase American interest in the more demanding academic disciplines.

Simon Gray, a Lake of the Woods resident and civilian employee of the Naval Sea Systems Command, has been working on that problem for several years. He got involved with For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire young people's interest in science and technology, as a FIRST LEGO League coach. This Saturday, Gray will host the area's first robotics competition for middle school and high school students, allowing young minds from 28 Virginia schools to test their thinking against others' to solve a robotics engineering problem.

The FIRST Tech Challenge regional competition will start at 10:30 a.m. at the Locust Grove Middle School with a welcome address by U.S. Navy Capt. Jim Downey, program manager for the Zumwalt Class Destroyer (DDG-1000).

Teams will be selected at random to form two-team alliances. Each alliance will use robots they have designed and built to complete the problem of picking up four half-inch rings from starting racks and transferring them to other racks configured to resemble a 3-by-3 grid (picture a tick-tack-toe game) within the 12- by 12-foot playing field. Each round of play will begin with a 30-second autono-mous section, where the robot must operate on its own, with no input from operators. For the next 21/2 minutes, robots may be guided via remote control. During the final 30 seconds of play, any team whose robot is successful in lifting its allied robot into the air will score bonus points.

All of the teams competing are in their first year of FTC competition, making this a "rookie" tournament.

Also competing (unofficially) during the day will be six local FIRST LEGO League teams of robotics enthusiasts ages 9 to 16, whose creations are composed of LEGO components.

Orange County will be represented in the tournament by the Locust Grove Middle School (Team Equinox). Stafford, Massaponax and Brooke Point high schools will also have teams competing. Other teams from as far away as Cedar Bluff, Haymarket and Newport News will also be taking part.

Winners will be eligible to compete in the Virginia FTC finals in Richmond in March.

Dan McFarland:

What: FIRST Tech Challenge Robotics Competition Where: Locust Grove Middle School, 6368 Flat Run Road, Locust Grove When: 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26 Cost: Admission is free. Info:

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