Robots Battle in FIRST Competition

May 22, 2002
| By Katy Rent |
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GRAND RAPIDS — It’s not the war of the worlds and robots are not taking over. But they are coming to Grand Rapids to duke it out with each other.

The Grand Center will host the FIRST Competition, March 9-10, where students from area high schools will partner with area businesses to create the winning robot. FIRST, an acronym from For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, sponsors the annual robotics competition. The national engineering contest is designed to inspire curiosity and create interest in science and mathematics among high school students.

Along with FIRST, the Michigan Department of Career Development (MDCD), Johnson Controls, Audio Advisor, SageStone and Grand Rapids Community College have joined to present the first West Michigan regional competition.

“There has been a regional competition in Detroit for a couple of years now, but this is the first year it has been brought to the area,” said Barbara Bolin, director of the MDCD. “This way the students and businesses from this area have a chance to compete closer to home.”

And that is a welcome opportunity for the local teams.

“Veteran FIRST teams in West Michigan have waited several years for a regional event to happen in their community,” said Natalie Lowell, FIRST/Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) Task Force chair for the SME.

“SME member and FIRST team engineer Tim Gates insisted that our SME organization be involved with these teams because they need engineers to assist in building the robots. This event is fulfilling dreams that many FIRST students, teachers, parents and engineers have had, and that is spotlighting science, technology, manufacturing — and believing that it’s cool to be smart.”

Some area high schools participating in the event include West Ottawa, Holland, Zeeland, Holland Christian, Ottawa Hills, Grandville and Grand Rapids Central.

The schools form teams of teachers, students and engineers, who serve as mentors, and other professionals from corporations and universities to design and build robots during a six-week period.

“We are very excited to sponsor the FIRST regional competition. This program creates much-needed partnerships among educators, employers and students and gets the students excited about careers in the fields of math and science,” said Bolin. “The students learn a great deal through mentorship, and the engineers and educators who serve as mentors gain the satisfaction that comes from helping young people learn new things. When students, technology, overwhelming amounts of excitement, teamwork and hands-on learning come together, you can’t help but find success.”

The corporate mentoring allows students to learn more about engineering career possibilities and serves as a recruitment tool for the corporations. In addition, the sponsoring corporations make a significant financial commitment to the teams.

One of the advantages of the program is that the teams consist of all volunteers. “Whoever wants to be involved can join the team; however, it is not uncommon for the entire school to become involved. Everyone from the art department creating T-shirts and posters to support the team to the cheerleaders going and cheering the team on.”

That volunteer spirit is essential, because building a robot is no simple task.

The students are sent a kit of parts and a set of regulations and guidelines. The robot must perform a stated task, which changes every year.

The team has six weeks to create their robot with the kit of parts and additional specified parts, if needed. On a specified date in February they must box up the robot and ship it to the regional competition. The only time the team has to practice with their robot is right before the competition.

At the competition, teams must demonstrate the capabilities of their robots on specific criteria in front of a panel of judges.

“Another wonderful aspect of this competition is that it gives students a chance to learn the significance of their classes, gives awareness of the real world and real life in an engineering profession,” said Bolin.

After teams compete in the regional competition, they may then advance to the national competition, set for April 5-7 at Disney’s Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla. It is expected that approximately 340 teams will compete and 24,000 people will attend. Any team may enter the competition.

“We are so happy to be a part of this and to be able to create a link between education and business,” said Bolin.

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