SOUTHFIELD — The deadline for nearly 200 high school robotics teams statewide to complete their creations is in three weeks. Soon after, the throng of Michigan’s future engineers, scientists, math experts and a new generation of skilled workforce will set out on a competition season with multiple tournaments taking place each weekend throughout the month of March.

FIRST Robotics is not a traditional sporting event and it’s certainly not a rock concert — but it looks and sounds like both. That’s how many people describe the crazy, competitive, highly educational and all-out fun of the FIRST Robotics Competition, what many people call the varsity sport of the mind.

FIRST in Michigan continues to grow with 191 high schools participating this season  — and it announced new district competitions to take place in Gull Lake and Northville to highlight the 2012 season.

“Recent news reports have indicated that many Michigan companies are now in a position to hire engineers and other skilled people, but many of the top candidates have already left the state for careers elsewhere,” said Francois Castaing, FIRST in Michigan president. “Programs like FIRST Robotics are the starting point for rebuilding the skilled workforce and economic engine drivers we need.”

The game changes each season to create a new challenge and a more even starting point for rookie teams. The 2012 game most resembles basketball.  Robots will be designed to shoot balls at four different goals at each end of the court (which is almost exactly the size of a high school volleyball court). There is also a bridge in the middle of the court that teams can use to score more points by getting their robot to balance on that bridge before time expires. Even more points will be granted if teams from opposite sides balance together on the bridge, ultimately defining the motto of FIRST Robotics, “Gracious Professionalism.”

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is active in nearly 35 percent of all Michigan high schools, making the Great Lakes State one of the highest participation rates in the country. The organization focuses on creating a high-energy environment that allows adult professional mentors to work side by side with high school students to show how much fun engineering, math, science and technology can be for a career choice.

“At a time when U.S. colleges of engineering find fewer students applying, industries need a steady flow of new, motivated STEM candidates to tackle international competition and environmental challenges,” Castaing said. “FIRST Robotics has proven repeatedly that high school student’s misconceptions about careers in engineering and technology can be overcome.  FIRST is the only varsity ‘sport’ in which all participants can actually turn pro.”

There are 10 Michigan district events, enabling all Michigan teams to each compete two times within the state. Similar to sports tournament formats, district competition scoring will qualify teams for the 2012 Michigan State Championship, set for April 12-14 at Eastern Michigan University. From there, 18 teams will be eligible to advance to the international FIRST Championship in St. Louis, April 25-28. Michigan teams have been on the winning alliance at seven of the last eight national championships.

All competitions are free and open to the public.   The district event has competitions at Kettering University in Flint and at Gull Lake High School March 2-3; Traverse City Central and Waterford Mott high schools March 9-10; at Wayne State University in Detroit and Grand Valley State University in Allendale March 16-17; at Northville and Niles high schools March 23-24; and at Livonia Churchill and Troy Athens high schools March 30-31.

FIRST in Michigan is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization responsible for implementing all FIRST programs in the state. There are currently 191 FIRST Robotics Competition high school teams and another 341 First Lego League teams of students 6-9 or 9-14 years old with more than 3,000 students competing.

Serial inventor Dean Kamen founded FIRST in the Manchester, N.H. schools in 1989  to inspire an appreciation of science and technology in young people. FIRST designs accessible, innovative programs to build self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills while motivating young people to pursue opportunities in science, technology and engineering.

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