Middle and high school students from across the state will compete in Mississippi’s fifth-annual FIRST Tech Challenge robotics competition on March 4 in the Tad Smith Coliseum at the University of Mississippi.
Hosted by UM’s Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE), 24 teams of students (from seventh to 12th grade) will pilot their self-designed and self-built robots with the hopes of qualifying for FIRST’s South Super Regional competition in Athens, Georgia in March. This year’s game is dubbed Velocity Vortex, a challenge where robots are programmed to push or lift different sized balls on a specially designed arena.
“Our goal is to inspire students into learning because we are losing our engineering workforce,” said Mannie Lowe, FIRST program manager at the CMSE. “Our engineers are aging out and no one is coming up to fill the void in this country.”
FIRST, an acronym meaning For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is a non-profit organization that was created 25 years ago by inventor Dean Kaman in an effort to build up STEM fields.
Up to 15 people are on each team and any organization can form a team—not just schools. Students are guided by teachers, coaches, mentors and community members. Teams are required to build a robot, keep an engineer’s notebook, and do some kind of outreach to promote STEM.
“I guarantee you, part of my group would not have otherwise thought about a STEM career beforehand,” said Holly Reynolds, team mentor for Bigweld’s Bots and associate dean for the UM College of Liberal Arts.
Bigweld’s Bots is an all-female team which formed out of Girl Scout Troop 33016. There is one other Girl Scout team in the state that does robotics, too. The two troops will soon be featured on Mississippi Roads a PBS show.
During the competition, alliances of two teams will face off against each other. This allows teams to learn how to work with other teams and enjoy a healthy competition at the same time.
Each match plays for 2 minutes and 30 seconds. The first 30 seconds, the robots will be operating autonomously and during the final 2 minutes, the robots will be operated by the students through handheld driver controllers.
The robots can be built out of virtually any material as long as the teams follow regulation rules. In the past, some teams have built their robots out of PVC pipe, wood and aluminum. However, the competition is about more than just robots.
“The fun in my job is watching and working with the kids,” Lowe said. “When you see their ‘A-Ha!’ light come on, it is amazing. It’s the realization that they can do this. They can build, they can program, they can design. Once they realize that, the world is theirs. They can do whatever they want.”
In the past, Mississippi teams have done well at FIRST Super Regional competitions. Last year, one team from Mississippi won the Inspire Award, the highest given in the competition.
With 5,000 teams worldwide, Mississippi had only four teams taking part in the challenge five years ago. Now there are 50 competing teams around the state.
Students begin designing and building their robot in September when the theme is announced. Last minute changes are normal, as well. Teams keep working to improve their robots until the morning of the competition.
Judging starts at 7 a.m. and the public should arrive at 10 a.m. The event will last until 5 p.m.
“FIRST events are part rock concert, part NASCAR race, because of the sponsor logos and team numbers on the side of each robot,” Lowe said. “They are also part chess tournament, due to each team’s different strategy, and just general fun. It’s a big party.”
By Alexandria Paton