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The Robots That Invaded Trenton

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By Marc

It's nice to get out of the office once in a while. Today I had the pleasure of joining Sheri McCoy -- the Worldwide Chairman of the Johnson & Johnson Surgical Care Group -- as she opened this year's New Jersey FIRST Robotics Competition in Trenton, New Jersey.

It was my second year attending NJFIRST -- and I was just as impressed as the first time I stepped into Trenton's Soveriegn Bank Arena and heard the whirr of electric motors, the thwpp of hydraulic lifts and the cheers and chants of the engineers and inventors of tomorrow.

Besides celebrating the sciences with an energy and verve that would shame most games played under the Friday night lights -- what makes this all so cool is that the competition is designed to encourage high school students to think for themselves -- to come up with innovative solutions to complex problems -- and to learn from their mistakes.

Six weeks ago, high school teams nationwide were given a task for their robots to perform in this tournament and set to work. No "how to" directions were included. Instead, each team examined the problem and, working with adult engineer mentors, developed their own solutions. Last year, the robots had to pluck donut-shaped rings off a 20 foot high metal "tree" and then return it to the team's base. This year, they had to lift 40-inch medicine balls off a platform and race their rivals around a central track, moving the balls with them.

No two robots were the same -- and each seemed to have components that would aide them in some aspect of the competition. Though ultimately one or two approaches proved to be more effective, you soon realized that no one way was perfect -- and that development of an ideal solution would take much more time and would involve trial and error as well as collaboration. For the competitors and those of us in the audience, the tournament provided a glimpse into the complexities of real innovation.

It's inspiring -- and also looks like a lot of fun. Hopefully, it will encourage competitors and spectactors alike to study technology, engineering and math -- which is one of the reasons why Johnson & Johnson is one of the corporate sponsors of this event (and supports 18 high school teams nationwide.). After all, it serves all of us in the business of human health to encourage students to study the sciences. Watching the students -- many in custumes including a whole contingent from Canada dressed as "Where's Waldo" -- I got to thinking how perhaps one of them will design a medical device that could improve our lives. After all Dean Kamen -- who founded FIRST -- lists a stent and an all terrain transporter among his many inventions.

For all of you within striking distance of the Trenton Makes bridge, I urge you to head to the Sovereign Bank Arena in lovely downtown Trenton to see the finals that start tomorrow, March 1 from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

(Note: Pictures to come...)

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