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NEWFANE – High school students working on perfecting their Frisbee skill isn’t exactly news.

Designing and building robots to do it? That’s different.

And that’s precisely what students at Newfane and Lockport High Schools have been doing for the last six weeks as they prepare for a regional competition set to begin Thursday in Rochester, with their eye on a much bigger big prize in St. Louis in late April, if they qualify.

The Newfane students, who call themselves the “Circuit Stompers,” and the Lockport students, who go by the name “Warlocks,” participate in the FIRST program – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The program began in 1989 in Manchester, N.H., as a means of organizing competitions for teams who design, prototype and build a robot to perform a specific task.

It has grown to include more than 45,000 students and nearly 2,000 teams throughout the world and is supported by local corporations, educational and professional institutions and individuals.

“The relationship between the mentors and the students is really valuable,” said Newfane sophomore Trevor Noon. “This is sort of like an apprenticeship. I don’t know of anything else like it anywhere.”

Newfane’s team this year includes 19 students in Grades 9 through 12 and about a dozen adult volunteers, including current and retired technology teachers, an English teacher and local professional engineers, as well as parents. Lockport, a much larger school, boasts about 40 students.

“This is an outstanding opportunity for any kid [who] is technology-oriented,” said William L. Neidlinger, a retired Newfane technology teacher who has been with the program for about a dozen years. “There is so much there for them to learn and to grab a hold of.”

“This is a team thing,” Neidlinger added. “We each have our own things to do, and each is equally important. The adults are kind of the glue for the team that holds things together and helps things run smoothly. We like to have the professional engineers work hand-in-hand with the kids – that’s what the program is all about.

“Kids can see that a person does this for a living, and when he or she heads off to college, they might know that this is what they want to do.”

Trevor said he’s considering a career in electrical engineering or computer science, and he thinks the FIRST program “is a great steppingstone.”

Teammate Ryan Driscoll said he’s thinking about aerospace, chemical or mechanical engineering. And he believes his role as president of the club has boosted his confidence as a leader.

“I used to be an introvert, but now I can talk in front of groups and take charge,” he said. “I’d like to go to MIT, and I met some people from MIT at the world championship last year.”

It was Newfane’s ninth trip to the big show, and Ryan, a freshman at the time, recalled that it was “overwhelming.”

“There were 400 teams there, and I met kids from Brazil and from Colombia,” he said. “We did fairly well.”

The highest the Newfane team has ever finished in the world competition is third place in 2003. In 2009, Lockport won the Finger Lakes Regional contest and was a semifinalist in the world championships.

“The competitions are like something you’ve never seen,” said Susan C. Vasko, an engineer with Delphi Thermal Systems in Lockport. She and her husband, fellow Delphi engineer Robert A. Vasko, have been involved with the Lockport team for several years. She said the participants manage to walk a fine line between cooperation and competition.

“It’s like an Engineering Olympics,” she added. “The kids learn many things from very good professional people about cooperation, troubleshooting, fixing things and pressure … And, the adults learn a lot too, because to design, prototype and build something in six weeks is not a trivial matter.”

Newfane and Lockport students interested in joining their teams must apply and interview for a spot because the program teaches leadership and life skills as well as promotes science and technology, Neidlinger said. Susan Vasko said that the Lockport program is so popular, they’ve had to turn applicants away. She added that team members can earn varsity letters for their participation.

“We start having safety meetings in the fall and meetings to show them how to use the equipment,” Neidlinger said. “Then, everyone in the world learns at the exact same time in early January what the new game and new rules will be for this year’s competition. We then have six weeks to design and build it.”

All teams had to have things wrapped up by last Tuesday, and they won’t see their finished product again until Thursday, when they begin the regional competition at Rochester Institute of Technology, Neidlinger explained. Both schools have also elected to go to a second regional competition, with Newfane headed to Cincinnati and Lockport going to Cleveland in March. Championships for the qualifying teams from around the world will be held later in April in St. Louis.

“I like to call this the ‘March Madness for Math, Science and Technology,’ ” Neidlinger said. “It’s nice to see everyone at the competitions talking and collaborating. We help each other and share parts, if needed. In the real world, you have to form partnerships, and that’s what we do.”

The schools also rely heavily on partnerships they have developed with area businesses. Neidlinger and Vasko both said Delphi and General Motors contribute to their programs, and the school districts help defray their transportation costs. Other local corporations and community groups also have contributed, Neidlinger said.

The Delphi Circuit Stompers were formed at Newfane High School in 1999, and they eventually invited Lockport students and teachers to join them. In 2005, Lockport branched out on its own and formed the Warlocks Robotic Team.

Vasko said it’s not unusual for student participants to return to the program years later as volunteer mentors.

She believes that participation gives students a real boost, whether they are entering college or looking for a career internship. Both of her sons participated: Ryan is now a chemical engineer at Delphi, while Eric is studying to be a chemical engineer on a full scholarship at Michigan State University.

“Our students learn an appreciation for hard work,” she said. “They call it ‘the hardest fun’ they’ve ever had.”

email: niagaranews@buffnews.com