It’s that time of year when middle and high school students nationwide get busy building robots. Last Spring a team of Highland Park High School students, who call themselves Beastie Bots, took their robot —known as 3785 — and captured the state title against other bot builders with names like RoboTheosis, Operation Rolling Thunder, and Teen Girl Squad. Now, the math and science whizzes are preparing, yet again, for preliminary bouts from November through January.
The competitions begin as scrimmages held at schools and other venues in local cities. Teams who have build the the best robots compete in the state finals, and the winner moves on to the world competition in Minneapolis. The robotic competition looks like a sporting event, except the only ones getting bruised and dented are the robots. Team members come dressed in matching uniforms, while cheerleaders, fans, and mascots dance to music in the bleachers.
“First Robotics has that ability to give kids that experience that is a life changing event,” says Jonathan Weiland, a biology teacher at Highland Park High School and First Tech Challenge mentor.
Apparently so. Each year thousands of students, teachers, and mentors take part in the First Robotic Challenge, managed by First Tech Challenge, an organization that encourages young people to be science and technology leaders. The teams, whose members range from grades 7-12 are sent a standard ‘robotic kit’ without instructions. Using basic engineering principles, the students must design, build, and program an 18-inch robot capable of performing tasks within given challenges. Last time the game was based on a complex tic-tac-toe model. The upcoming challenge will include ramps, bars, pulleys, and platforms.
There are no so-called ‘prizes,’ except for being adjudged, in the eyes of their peers, as the best robotic engineers in the world, and $16 million in scholarships. In 2013, awards ranging from $500 to full tuition at a four-year university, were doled out. First Tech Challenge says their participating students are more likely to go to college and twice as likely to major in science. Girls, they say, are four times more likely to study math and science.
Weiland, who has been teaching for 28 years, calls the program a microcosm of the real world, where community involvement is imperative to raising smart, and productive, young people.
“We’re always looking for people to help out. And mentors, who have one afternoon a week, or who could come one or two Saturdays a year to help at our regional or state tournaments,” he says. “I found very few programs which can change children’s lives.”
To watch the local scrimmages in Illinois, check the schedule here. ❒
[Photo of student robot engineers at TechWeek by Rose Tibayan. © Blackline Review.]