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Robotics team hopes to make 'Magic' again at world championship

The M'Aiken Magic robotics team will head to Texas next week to compete on the international stage.

The team, including about 20 students, a coach, mentors and parents, will leave after school Tuesday on their way to Houston to participate in the three-day FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) World Championship from Thursday to Saturday. FIRST stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology."

The team is open to any high school student in the Aiken-Augusta area. This year's team members are from Aiken High, South Aiken High, North Augusta High and home-schooled students from Aiken and Augusta.

M'Aiken Magic last qualified for the world championship in 2010, said Clyde Ward, one of the team's mentors. From 2003, when the program began, to 2008, the team qualified for the competition five years in a row.

“This is a big deal for us to be back competing,” Ward said. “We have been scrambling to get prepared for this competition this week. It has been hectic, but we are still stoked.”

To get to the world championship, the team, which competed for the first time this year in the Peachtree District, which includes mostly Georgia schools, placed first in a qualifying round in Duluth, Georgia.

On April 7, the team won the Peachtree District championship at the University of Georgia in Athens against the top 45 teams in the district. They competed against schools backed by General Electric, General Motors and Georgia Tech.

“Being No. 1 in Georgia out of the 82 teams in the district, that's pretty incredible,” Ward said.

In Houston, the team will compete against more than 300 teams from around the world.

“There's a team we're familiar with coming from Sydney, Australia,” Ward said. “We haven't seen them in many years. We're excited about that.”

In addition to the competition, the team will tour Space Center Houston and do some sightseeing Wednesday morning before getting ready for the next day's first round of matches.

John Fogarty, an engineer and a former member of M'Aiken Magic from 2005 to 2012, is the team's head coach. When he was a student on the team in 2010, the team won the lower-level FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship, which is the only championship-level event any team from South Carolina or Georgia has ever won, Fogarty said.

"Aiken has that to hold as its own standard, and we can wave that flag," Fogarty said. "We might have a chance to win something again at world's this year because we're performing very well."

Fogarty said he is excited to be back as the team's coach and proud of the students and the improvements they made to their robot after each tournament that led to the district championship.

“We competed at a level that allowed us not only to beat those teams but also to stand atop them all in a dominant fashion at the end of the day,” he said. “It was an extremely proud moment to see the students put in the long hours.

“The students who lead our team really put the work in to make sure that we were successful this year. Our lead engineering student is a freshman, and he has continuously impressed us all.”

In addition to being a fun challenge, FIRST Robotics, and its sister programs for elementary and middle school students, gives kids hands-on experience with science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, Ward said, adding that the local program has been particularly successful at creating engineers.

“Between a third and a half of our graduates have gone into engineering in college,” he said. “FIRST is the best program in the country – and the world – for getting high school students interested in STEM and choosing to go into engineering in college.”

Ward said one of the team's mentors was a member of M'Aiken Magic, like Fogarty, and another was on a team in New Jersey.

“We have another mentor who lived in a homeless shelter in Aiken as a sophomore in high school, was a student on our team for four years and has been a mentor for the team for the last three years,” he said. “This team has literally changed the lives of several students in the last 16 years.”

To see a video of M'Aiken Magic's win at the Peachtree District State Championship, visit click here.

The team's largest backers are Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, Aiken County Public Schools and Bechtel Corp.

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