By HEATHER KEELS
7:39 PM EDT, March 26, 2011
A fire burned in the back room.
Onlookers held their breath.
Precious seconds were ticking by, and the lone firefighter on the scene was repeatedly running headfirst into a wall.
"Now he's going the wrong way!" someone gasped.
Fortunately, the elusive fire was only a candle burning inside a foot-tall maze, but for participants in the ShepRobo Fest robotics competition at Shepherd University, the adrenaline was real.
Teams of high school and college students spent months building and programming firefighting robots for the challenge, in which the robots had five minutes to find and extinguish the candle flame using air, water or other mechanisms.
The challenge was one of three events open to robotics enthusiasts of various age groups as part of an all-day event Saturday in the university's Butcher Center.
Other contests included a mech-warefare challenge for participants of all ages and a LEGO League event for students in grades four through eight.
This is the first time Shepherd University has hosted a robotics competition, said Reza Mirdamadi, associate professor and chair of Shepherd's Department of Computer Science, Mathematics and Engineering.
"The purpose of this event is basically to trick the students to learn, really, and at the same time to stimulate the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field," Mirdamadi said. "We believe things like that can bring a lot of excitement to the STEM field."
Participants in a firefighting robot team from Washington County Technical High School said their group members learned the necessary skills as they went, beginning the project in early January.
Their robot, nicknamed "termin-in-ator," was equipped with an infrared sensor to detect the fire and a propeller to blow it out, but in a first round, the bot didn't seem to notice the flame.
"Our sensor was just a little too low," junior Ben Mercier said.
Mercier, 17, said he was interested in a career in aerospace engineering and thought the robotics competition was good preparation.
The competition was funded with a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) in West Virginia, and $100,000 in matching funds from Shepherd, Mirdamadi said.
Winners from the high school division were to receive a $500 scholarship to attend John Hopkins University's Engineering Innovation summer course for high school students, scheduled this summer at Shepherd University, Mirdamadi said.
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