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George Mason University

Mason Students and Alums Readied Robots to Rumble at Patriot Center

March 31, 2015   /   by Michele McDonald

Students refine their machine amid FIRST robotics competition at Mason

Team ILITE Robotics from Battlefield High School in Haymarket, Virginia fine tune their robot at the FIRST DC Regional Robotics Competition. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services/George Mason University

Robots brought Jacob Cohen's future to life and he's returning the favor.

The George Mason University graduate returned to the Patriot Center last week to mentor students from his former high school in Haymarket, Va., as their six-foot-tall robot competed in the FIRST Robotics DC regional competition March 27-28.

"I was Mr. Fix-It in my family from age 6," says Cohen, who earned his computer engineering degree from George Mason last year. "I didn't know what computer engineering was until I joined the ILITE Robotics team at Battlefield High School. It just clicked. Plus, robots are also a ton of fun."

A FIRST Robotics competition is no quiet affair. A thumping soundtrack, cheering fans and center ring competition make it feel like a professional wrestling event. The robots break down and teams fix them at furious speeds.

Alumni Lakshmi Meyyappan (on left) and Jacob Cohen, Computer Engineering '14, mentor and celebrate team ILITE Robotics after winning the Chariman's award at the FIRST Robotics Competition for the greater DC region. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services/George Mason UniversityThe ILITE Robotics team won the Chairman's Award at the event, FIRST's most prestigious award. The award goes to the team that, in the judges' estimation, best represents a model for other teams to emulate, embodying the goals and mission of FIRST.

There are enough FIRST Robotics alums at Mason that freshman Katie Barthelson started the FIRST Alumni and STEM Club in the fall. The Mason student, who is also an alumna of Battlefield High School and the ILITE Robotics club, has two siblings earning their degrees at Mason.

And since this year's competition theme is recycling, competitors donated their scrap metal at the Patriot Center, says Barthelson, who's in systems engineering at the Volgenau School of Engineering. She hauled the scrap to the recycling center.

"They say ‘measure twice and cut once,' but sometimes you can't always cut perfectly," she jokes.

The engineering school's growing robotics expertise is catching on. Engineering students used Mason's 3-D printer to create some specialized parts for the ILITE Robotics robot.

Roughly 600 students have been a part of the ILITE team––many of them have gone to Mason and all have gone on to college, says Gail Drake, ILITE coach and a professor at Northern Virginia Community College. The NOVA-Mason connection is appealing to students, especially those who want to earn their master's degrees, she says.

College students continue to benefit from the robotics team as volunteers and mentors, says Lakshmi Meyyappan, who's now working on her master's degree in computer engineering after graduating last year. Both Meyyappan and Cohen work as consultants for the software company Macedon Technologies, a team sponsor.

"The reason I stick around the organization is it's more than just robots," says Meyyappan, whose sister is also a Mason graduate student. "Students get life skills. They're taught organization and how to present a plan. If you can't program, it's not the end."

Cohen adds, "It's very similar to real life—you have a deadline and you'd better hit it. We've pulled all-nighters."

And mentoring grade school to high school students has helped the college students through challenging engineering classes at Mason.

"There are points in engineering when it's difficult and I wish I had taken an easier major," Meyyappan says. "What I'm passionate about is getting kids into STEM. The STEM fields are the future."

Seeing the younger students having that "light bulb" moment is amazing, Meyyappan says. One grade-school student kept herself in the background until Meyyappan stepped in to give her some guidance.

"A few weeks in, and she said ‘I can do this!' and then she started helping someone else," Meyyappan says. "She owned it."

And the younger students can see the possibilities of where robotics can take them.

"I'm these kids in four years," Cohen says. "It gives them a glimpse of a closer future."

A version of this story by Michele McDonald appeared in Mason News on March 30.

FIRST robotics competition at Mason

Alumus Jesse Knight (middle), Systems Engineering '11, mentors Team ILITE Robotics from Battlefield High School in Haymarket, Virginia compete at the FIRST DC Regional Robotics Competition. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services/George Mason University