Robots rumbled the Maverik Center in West Valley March 15-17 at the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics Competition.
FIRST is an international high school robotics competition that brings science and technology together with team sports and cooperation.
About 60,000 high school students in 12 different countries and 49 states are participating in this worldwide event in regional competitions like the one held in West Valley. The states of Arizona, California, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah were represented at the Maverik Center. At stake was a spot in the national tournament to be held in St. Louis, Missouri at the end of April.
Teams of high school students are given standard-issue kits and six weeks to build competitive robots under the guidance of mentors who are professionals in engineering and technology fields.
One goal of the event is to create an atmosphere of a typical sporting event in the arena, complete with team mascots and cheering fans. This year’s event was basketball themed.
“Just in time for March Madness,” said Adam Neff, a 12-year-old who came to watch the competition with his Boy Scout troop to pass off a requirement for the Robotics merit badge. “Basketball, cool. Robots, cool. Basketball with robots –awesome.”
The original purpose of FIRST, according to founder Dean Kamen, was to inspire youth to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. In an article he wrote in the Huffington Post earlier this year he shared about a time when he was at a museum of science and he asked a question to many kids that were there.
“Encouraged by this apparent interest in science and technology, I posed a question to the group of young scholars — could one of them name a living scientist or inventor,” wrote Kamen. “The group was silent. I looked up and asked the parents the same question. More silence. Finally, one of the adults spoke up. ‘Einstein,’ he said. ‘But I think he’s dead.’”
Kamen concluded that many kids could probably name a basketball star or other sports icon but couldn’t name some of the greatest minds of our generation. He began to be concerned how the United States, now ranking 23rd in science and 31st in math among 65 developed nations, could compete with the rest of the world. He decided he needed to come up with a way to inspire youth to the sciences, which was the genesis of FIRST.
“If America is to win the future of invention and discovery, we must first capture the minds and imaginations of young scientists and innovators,” Kamen said.
Basketball and Robots
Rebound Rumble was the name of this year’s competition event. It was played much like a basketball game but with the players as robots controlled by high school kids. The robots competed by scoring as many basketballs into the hoops as possible during a two minute and 15 second match. There were four hoops in which the robots could score. The higher the hoop the more points the team receives.
The match started in autonomous mode in which the robot operates independent of a driver for 15 seconds. Balls scored during the autonomous counted for double points. Drivers controlled robots through the rest of the match and tried to score as many baskets as possible. The event ended with a final match between the best teams.
“It’s really inspiring to see people of all generations working together to create a community,” said Kristen Johnsen, captain of the team representing the Waterford School which won the competition. “It’s really exciting. We were the underdogs and we won.”
“To make the world a better place”
“It’s a big investment in our community and in our children,” said University of Utah professor John Hollerbach, who is the judge advisor for the event. “Everyone is so excited about it. It’s to make being smart cool, not just being an athlete, and our future depends on these people, not the athletes.”
This is Utah’s third year hosting the regional event. The competition is sponsored by organizations such as NASA and receives support from local corporations and universities and colleges in Utah.
“[The purpose of FIRST is] really hard to put it in one sentence because there is so much,” said Mark Minor, co-chair of the event. “To make the world a better place. Really it’s to give our kids a better chance in life and things that are important to our society.”
Minor, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Utah, was one of the organizers of this event. He also had a hand in bringing the event to Utah. Many of the high school students that have participated in these events end up pursuing careers in engineering and have Minor as a professor at the university. Many students have become volunteers themselves.
“I have had so much fun doing it,” said Nick Traeden, the Master of Ceremonies for the event who has been a student participating in the event and is now a volunteer. “As a volunteer you get to see all of the rewards of the teams getting really happy. You are also contributing to society in a meaningful way. Joining a team is one of the more meaningful things you can do in high school because it really prepares you for post high school.”