TEL AVIV — Forward Omri Casspi made the leap from Israel to the National Basketball Association in 2009, but the latest Israeli hoopsters seeking to compete on American soil aren’t human.
Earlier this month, several thousand spectators watched student-built robots from across Israel square off for two days on a custom-sized basketball court at Tel Aviv’s Nokia Arena.
Dozens of high school teams built their own robots for a chance to represent Israel in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) World Championship, to be held at St. Louis’s Edward Jones Convention Center from April 25-28. This year’s St. Louis-bound teams include Team Elysium from Maccabim-Reut-Modiin’s Mor High School, Team Orbit from Binyamina’s ORT High School, and Raptor Force Engineering from Jim Elliot High School in Lodi, Calif.
FIRST is a worldwide nonprofit that encourages students to explore and develop their abilities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) disciplines in a fun and supportive environment. Founded in 1989 by technologist and Segway inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST currently has branches in five countries—Brazil, Canada, Israel, Mexico and the U.S.—with over 250,000 school-age children and 68,000 adult team mentors participating annually in competitive events.
Six weeks ahead of the regional final in Tel Aviv, 46 teams of high school students and their adult mentors were tasked with using their knowledge of science and engineering principles to build game-play robots. The student-built robots were required to have the following basketball-related capabilities: shooting free-throws; gathering rebounds to convert field goals; and attempting to balance between one and three robots on seesaws placed in the middle of the court.
During the season-ending playoffs, teams had to take things one step further and forge alliances with two partner teams—a process that resembled a schoolyard kickball draft.
Kamen—whose father, well-known American Jewish comic illustrator Jack Kamen, designed the FIRST logo—was a highly visible figure in this year’s regional competition in Israel. Wearing a bright red Hawaiian shirt, the younger Kamen served as a referee and an English-language game announcer during the two-day event.
Among the robots at the competition, one standout presence was a bright pink robot developed by an all-girls team called “Ladies FIRST,” from Beersheba’s Ulpana Amit religious high school. Sponsored by Beersheba Municipality and Ben-Gurion University’s jointly run INBAL Project (which encourages teenage girls to pursue studies and careers in science and engineering), the team of plucky young women from the Negev were excited to make the final round.
“We are the first and only all-girls team to the join the competition,” said team captain Tal-Or Wartzmann, amidst the raucous cheers of her teammates. “We girls set up the team through our own efforts. The girls came together, and we found corporate sponsors and got [Beersheba] city hall and Ben-Gurion University to join the effort.”
Not all of the fun belonged to the teenagers. Also attending the two-day event were local political figures and business leaders in both Israeli and American industry, including Tel Aviv-Jaffa Mayor Ron Huldai, Bank Hapoalim Chairman Yair Serussi and FIRST Israel co-founder Josh Weston.
“The mayor views the scientific disciplines as an important field of study and [believes] that any initiative that succeeds in challenging the youth and developing their capacity for advanced thought is an interesting and welcome initiative,” Huldai’s office wrote in an email to JointMedia News Service.
Tel Aviv City Hall, Huldai added, is “pushing forward a strategic effort towards solidifying its standing as the Silicon Valley for firms outside of the United States.”
FIRST Israel certainly has appeared on the radar of young technology aficionados outside the country. Two U.S.-based teams from Christian high schools located in Lodi, Calif., and Marshall, Va., chose to compete in this year’s regional championship.
“Our team mentor has been talking about coming to this competition a couple years now and this is the first time we’ve actually had enough money to make the trip,” said 17-year-old Fresta Valley High School senior Christian Berryman. “We are, like, famous here because we are one of two teams from America. Everyone comes up and shakes our hands. It’s very cool!”