Robotics: A Sport for the Mind
“Gracious Professionalism” is what you will find amongst the male and female competitors at a FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) Robotics Competition. In this sport for the mind, their game piece is their robot and their playing field is a square, foam-tiled floor with low walls where they compete head-to-head. The competition is fierce as these students engage in STEM while learning the value of hard work, innovation, and creativity, as well as, the importance of working together, sharing ideas, and treating each other with respect and dignity.
“To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.” —Dean Kamen, FIRST Founder
Around the world, there are projected to be 4,450 FIRST Tech teams involving 44,500 students in grades 7-12 for the 2014-15 year. Robotics competitions are relatively new here in Mississippi, however the number of teams is growing at a fast pace thanks to the efforts of Mr. Mannie Lowe with the University of Mississippi Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE). As a sponsor of Mississippi FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), the University of Mississippi CMSE sends Mannie around Mississippi promoting science and math in schools, home school groups, after school programs, and other types of community involvement. When he started Mississippi FTC, there were only 4 teams involved, and now just in his 3rd year, there are close to 50 teams throughout Mississippi.
Although there are costs to start an FTC team, Mannie says there are also starter grants available for rookie teams. The University of Mississippi CMSE helps with materials for new teams in Mississippi wanting to start a program. These materials are valued at approximately $2,500 and include a robot kit, a laptop (if needed), training and a teacher stipend at the end of the year. There are also rookie grants available through FIRST by filling out an application. In addition, teams may also choose to get sponsors to help offset the costs.
Teams are responsible for designing, building, and programming their robots for competition (robots are re-usable from year-to-year). They must also develop strategy and build their robots based on sound engineering principles. There are rules for the design requiring the robot to be built from specified materials, and it must fit within an 18" sizing cube prior to competition. After the match begins, a team’s robot can grow to any size as it competes.
Teams consist of two driver operators, a coach, and a robot as they compete in an alliance format against other teams. Four teams compete at once in a 3-minute match with two teams in an alliance against the other two-team alliance. Their objective is to score more points than the other alliance by collecting balls and putting them in the rolling goals. Then, they want to move their rolling goals to marked-off scoring areas. Awards are given for the competition as well as for community outreach, design, and other real-world accomplishments.
As we sat in attendance at this Mississippi FTC Robotics Competition State Qualifier, we could see, firsthand, how the teams work together in competition, encouraging one another and helping one another to be better. We also recognized the look of accomplishment for doing their job well. Dan Blacksher, father of an FTC team member, said, “When we started Robotics, I didn’t realize how much it was going to develop my son’s communication skills, as much as anything else, including the technical aspects of it. It has amazed me how he has developed in his interpersonal skills, but when you really think about Robotics, one of the keys to problem solving is being able to communicate your idea about how to fix the problem. I think if more kids were exposed to Robotics, they would discover how much fun science can be, and how it relates to so much of their daily lives.”