Editor's Note, 4/30/12: The FIRST World Championships concluded this weekend. A team from Middleton High School in Tampa, Fla., was one of the big winners in the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) division. (FIRST Robotics recognizes a set of teams as champions. ENR Southeast will have more news soon about this school's winning effort.

April 26th marked the first day of competition in the world championships of robotics engineering, being held at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Mo. It's the culmination of the season for the organization known as FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

Founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen in 1989, it supports middle- and high-school "teams" that compete in three different levels of robotics engineering. (Full disclosure: As I've blogged about before, my son took part in a robotics team this year. His team didn't make it to the World Championships, though another team from his school did.) This informative and inspirational promotional video from the group featuring Morgan Freeman and Kamen explains what this group is all about:

Promotional video from FIRST

In a nutshell, here's how the competition works: FIRST officials come up with a new "game" every year, and shortly before the season starts, they unveil it to all of the teams. (U.S. Teams are supported by US First, but teams come from all over the world.) Teams then begin to engineer and eventually build their "bots" to perform the tasks demanded by the challenge. This year, the challenge required a robot that could pick up and lift balls and crates, and elevate them as high as possible. (It's all about the elevators! This is where the teams can score big.)

Teams compete against each other in regional and, if successful, eventually state tournaments. From there, two or three teams from each state competition—it depends on the state—move on to the Worlds. Here's a 90-second video that shows a pair of bots practicing their moves. Note the use of infrared sensors to guide the bots automatically:

Robots in action

This wonderfully geeky group of engineering and science students is on the march. According to FIRST's website, the current season has "attracted close to 300,000 youth and more than 100,000 mentors, coaches and volunteers from 60+ countries."

Now it's even officially cool. What else can you call something that gets kicked off by a rock star like Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas? He later tweeted that "Robotics is so inspirational to me," and that "Im so inspired by these kids ... America needs usfirst in all schools." Here's a pic of Will.i.am and Kamen together. (Note: In this twitpic, Will.i.am is rocking some safety glasses - not sure if that's just Will.i.am being Will.i.am, but competitors are actually required to wear safety glasses at the competition. He kind of makes those cool.)

The competitions emphasize teamwork, and teams working together. Based on this Black Eyed Peas video of a pretty cool "flash mob," Will.i.am seems to know something about engineering people working together and the incredible things that can happen as a result. (Note the giant robots on stage.)

Will.i.am and the Black Eyed Peas engineer some teamwork via a cool flash mob.

Piers Morgan interviews Dean Kamen and Will.i.am about FIRST.

Feel free to share your thoughts on this unique effort to educate our country's future engineers and scientists!