Let the games begin!
I’m right now watching the preliminary rounds of the First Robotics Competition regional event at the University of California Davis. I’ve never been to a robotics competition before, but was asked to help out with the team from my school, Carmel High School. Being a science geek, I was intrigued and agreed to come along. Plus, I am a little worried that robots are going to take over the world (I saw the Matrix and Terminator.).
I don’t think that I’m much help, however. These kids know their business. Many of them are seasoned veterans of hard robot battles and don’t need a novice like me getting in the way. I thought I was pretty handy with tools, but here I am a little out classed. So, I feel like a fifth wheel on a robot. Despite aimlessly walking around and trying to not mess things up, I’m really enjoying the event. Since the kids don’t need my help, I have plenty of time to watch and learn.
To say that these robots are impressive is an understatement. I had no idea that high school students could design, construct, program, and operate such sophisticated machines. Even more amazing, they are made from scratch in just eight weeks!
FIRST was founded by Dean Kamen, the man that invented the Segway (those cool two-wheel electric scooter-like devices you see in cities around the world). It is a non-profit organization that partners with industry, universities, NASA, and others to promote STEM education since 1992. They host FIRST Lego League Junior competitions for children starting as young as six years old and continue through high school with FIRST Robotics Competition. In FIRST, there are over 3,600 active teams from 30 countries that send robots to battle in the arena during the three day regional competition.
The competition event is difficult to explain. Every year it is a different challenge to keep students engaged and thinking. They need to create a unique robot for a specific purpose while keeping within the rules of the competition.
This year’s completion involves driving your robot around the playing field to pick up cubes and place them in specific cubbies and on high and low balances as you maneuver around competitors trying to get cubes too and stop you. You are randomly assigned to a team with two other robots, so it is a three on three match. You get extra points if at the end, and before time is up, your robot can grab a bar and pull itself up off the floor. If it can lift one or more other team robots with it, then you score even more points. Confused? Me too. The match combines, technical ingenuity, operating agility, and team strategy. It is a blast to watch!
I love programs like FIRST! It allows students to engage in solving complex problems, applying knowledge, working together, and utilizing tools and technology in a fun event. Our students clearly are enjoying themselves. As an educator, I can see the wheels turning in their young heads, not just on the robots they build.
Of course, I do feel a little dated. These robots are light years beyond the Erector Sets I loved as a child. Maybe I can impart a little experience to the team. If not, I’m having fun and learning!