Unlike the robot they recently completed, the robotics team at Proviso Math and Science Academy had a difficult time getting off the ground. At the beginning of the school year, the team had no lab and an administration in turmoil.

But Robotics Coach Tom Dix and a handful of students didn’t lose hope. When the difficult transition between principals impacted the team’s ability to participate in a competition last fall, the team volunteered to referee at the tournament, giving them valuable experience.

“I’ve been really impressed with these students,” Dix said. “They have an incredible work ethic.”

Now the PMSA Robotics team is preparing for its first official match at the Midwest Regional FIRST Robotics Competition on March 15. For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), is an organization founded by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway Human Transporter.

The PMSA team is one of 260 rookie teams, joining 1,043 veteran teams from around the world that will be competing in one of 37 regional competitions, with the championship in Atlanta.

After securing a lab and the administration’s permission, the team had to find a sponsor to provide funds. Students landed a donation from NASA to cover the $6,000 fee to participate.

That’s when the real work began. Dix and his 17 students had to build a robot that could meet the specific challenges of the 2007 FIRST competition in six weeks. The students teamed up with mentors to design, build and test their first competitive robot.

“Our mentors are a real blessing,” Dix said. “We’ve got some great ones. Tony Pusateri and Bob Workman are independent contractors who work for Kraft/Nabisco, building and maintaining automated production line machines for their nearby plant. Tony, in addition, used to be director of a young men’s initiation program, similar to the Mankind Project. He knows robots, and he knows teens. Jean Steele is a housewife, who used to be a helicopter mechanic in the Army. She’s helped us out with our bumpers.”

Joy Lillis, a freshman who helped design, build and drive the robot, said the mentors were invaluable during the design process.

“We had white boards and drew our ideas,” Lillis said. “It was a brainstorming session.”

The PMSA school mascot is the python, so the robotics team has called its robot Monty the Python.

“It was fun to build,” Lillis said. “At first, I had no idea what pieces went where, but now I have a better idea how things work. Now I want to know how things are put together. We had a fun time working on it, we all work together.”

The F.I.R.S.T. competition is not at all like the fighting robots that have been featured in television shows like “BattleBots.” Teams pair up in three-member alliances during competitions to complete challenges. Cooperation and team spirit is an element that the organizers at FIRST emphasize. Their motto is “Gracious professionalism.”

During the kickoff ceremony for the competitions, FIRST Chairman John Abele said, “The FIRST robotics competition is not about machines it’s about people. It’s about learning to work together with others towards a shared goal.”

Dix agreed.

“You’ll see members from one team coming off of a competition and going over to help someone else with their machine,” Dix said. “Veteran teams are always helping rookies. Our students are looking forward to helping next year’s freshmen.”

PMSA had a chance to test drive its robot when they competed informally against a former national champion. The PMSA team won the match 30 to 2.

The FIRST Midwest Regional is being held at UIC Pavilion at 525 South Racine Ave. and is open to the public.