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Future Watch: High School Robotics Competition Season

Recently I watched a friend’s son compete in an international high school team robotics competition, and was simply amazed. Not knowing what to expect, we witnessed great competition, high energy fun, teamwork, collaboration, technical problem solving, and exhausted students.  And I glimpsed many of our future scientists and engineers in action!

There are several relatively well known robotics competitions, including the one we watched - First Robotics.  In the fall of each year a “challenge” is announced via a webcast –and the six week “build” cycle begins.  Student teams of about 30 - with names like “SOTAbots,” “Horns of Havoc,” “ShockWave,” and “Cyborg Ferrets” - develop their strategy and finalize a robot design.  In the process, teams learn about and explore design techniques, team dynamics, mechanical and electrical engineering, and software programming.  All teams share a “ship date” deadline for finishing their work.  Taken together, it struck me that this really mirrors real life in many ways.

This year’s robots had to pick up a large (3 foot diameter) ball from the ground, carry it and throw it through a goal about 10 feet high or roll it into a lower box.  The event is as much about the process as the competition.  While scoring occurs on the field of play, teams also build significant points by documenting the build well, through great presentations to the judges, and by helping other teams during the “coop-a-tition”).

The field competition consisted of three randomly selected robots working together in what’s called an “Alliance.” A team’s independent score is partially determined by how well their Alliances perform. During the finals, each top eight team can draft others to form Alliances that are strengthened by diversity.  Obviously this translates into a lot of scouting and strategy that goes into these finals selections.  Everyone was fueled by a high energy Master of Ceremony and crazy dance music throughout the day.

We attended a District competition where the winners would earn the chance to compete in St. Louis at the World Championships. (Did I mention the student fund raising to pay for the robots and travel/competition costs or the mentoring students do with younger kids who might compete one day!)   Our team came into the contest in first place but had lost their position as the competition went on.

Eventually they made it back to the final round of four, then to the finals as the leader of their Alliance.  They won the first contest by a mere 5 points to the number 1 ranked team.  They won the second contest (best 2 of 3) as well to become the district champions and one of 24 teams to advance to the finals this year.

These were our future scientists and engineers at work!  If your company is looking to engage your community, join the fun as a mentor volunteer.  These kids and their robots are great!  And who knows, maybe one of those scientists- or engineers-to-be will help your company win the global market competition in the future.

About the author

Tab Wilkins

Tab Wilkins is Regional Manager for Strategic Transition and Senior Technology Advisor at NIST MEP, primarily supporting Centers in the western US. Prior to joining NIST, Tab helped establish and run two MEP centers and has a varied background in non-profit management, leadership development and technology-based Economic Development.

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