Parents, Students, Graduates Alike Geek Out Over Robots

By Kathleen Serino, Reporter

MARION, Iowa – More than 150 tech-savvy high schoolers, robot fanatics and their parents, as well as local engineers and other community members, gathered Saturday to geek out over robots.

Saturday kicked off the first of a string high school robotics competitions that have burgeoned in Iowa, so much so that a statewide final tournament was created to include everyone this school year.

Sixteen teams of aspiring teens gathered in the cafeteria of Linn-Mar High School, 2999 N Tenth St. to play Bowled Over! this year's FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) competition, a second of a series of worldwide youth robotics and engineering programs sponsored by the FIRST non-profit organization.

Founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and an accumulation of medical devices, FIRST was created to galvanize young people to become leaders in science and technology. Thanks to the program, one of Mount Vernon High School's two FTC teams, Activate Go Initiative! has attended the past three world competitions in St. Louis, Missouri.

Running the show at the state level was 32-year-old Rebecca Whitaker, a K-12 outreach coordinator and FTC affiliate partner with the University of Iowa College of Engineering, who said it's phenomenal how much the competition has blossomed.

"The rate of our growth has actually been very unusual," she noted of the 65 Iowa teams out of the 1,878 teams worldwide.

Whitaker said only two Iowa high schools joined the FTC for the 2008-2009 school year. That number increased to 24 the following year, then 50 in 2010-2011.

"It was two divisions and one-and-a-half days," she said, exasperated, of last year's overly crowded 48-team qualifying tournament at the University of Iowa's Memorial Union.

This school year 65 Iowa teams registered, which entails applying for a grant from the Rockwell Collins or John Deere companies, who offer either a kit complete with a 12-volt direct current motor, range sensors, wheels, Lego brick and aluminum and other automation equipment, or $1000 to cover the cost of one.

Whitaker credited the cause of growth to a desire for a bottom-up learning process.

"A lot of teachers and students wanted more of a hands-on approach to learning about engineering," she said, noting that often students ask when they'll ever actually apply mathematical concepts to real life.

But with a robotics challenge such as this, students learn use algebra, geometry and physics to reach game objectives and troubleshoot.

"And really, [FTC] is a real world problem: they have a limited budget, a limited time frame, and they have to complete a mission," she said.

After their 18-inch by 18-inch mobile bots passed a laundry list of meticulous software and hardware inspections, the teams were paired off on a playoff bracket. The object of Bowled Over!, which is played on a 12-foot by 12-foot field, is to be the team to use their bots to place the most racquetballs in crates and then stack them for the most points.

But there's a caveat. Each team must enter a 30-second autonomous period where their robots have to play just by how it was programmed prior to the game. Then two minutes of gameplay via remote control.

Since its inception, all challenges have been played on the same size field, but the rules and equipment used in the game changes every year. Whitaker said in past year's teams have played with wiffleballs and batons.

"It's fun to watch," said 19-year-old FTC veteran player Jeffery Schons, who played on the original Linn-Mar team his senior year. He said he declared his major, aerospace engineering, at Iowa State not long ago.

Noah Swanson, 16, a team member of Wildcat Robotics for Central City High School, said his team just upset the Linn-Mar Super Ninjas, but their record today was not enough for them to move on to the state level. Each team is allowed to enter one more qualifier before the state final, which Swanson says his team intends to do so.

"Biomedical groups, hospitals, Boeing, other avionics, Lockheed Martin and John Deere are looking at these kids," one volunteer said.

Cedar Rapids resident Chris Simons, a volunteer mentor for the Mount Vernon Linn-Mar Super Ninjas, and Rockwell Collins engineer, said FTC has been a stepping stone for 20 select high school juniors and seniors each year; Rockwell, a major sponsor of the program, hires a lot of FTC players for their internship program.

Moving on to the state final is the Linn-Mar Super Ninjas, and the Linn-Mar Outrageous Finger Socks (for hosting the tournament), the Ankeny High School Robohawtagons, and Mount Vernon High School's Classified.

"Those kids have worked so hard," Mount Vernon Robotics Club sponsor Richard Scearce said.

Whitaker said she was blown away with the turnout, volunteerism, and especially the teams' performances of the whole day.

The state championship will take place February 25 at the UI IMU. The world championship is slated for May.
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