The University of Idaho Memorial Gymnasium was abuzz Saturday with the chatter of middle and high school students. Between excited cheers and exasperate discussions, phrases like “gear ratios,” “motors” and “autonomous program” contributed to the colorful cacophony of the robotics competition.
In the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), held on the UI campus this weekend, students are challenged to create a robot no more than 18 square inches in size capable of completing several tasks. This year”s challenge involved climbing and moving “debris” off the field, said Tim Ewers, who helped organize the event.
Even in the colorful crowd, Team Beauty Bots and the Beast were easy to pick out. Adorned in beastly hats, complete with fuzz, they were charging their robot”s battery in preparation for the competition.
Paul Riebe, a high school junior from Caldwell, Idaho, said his love for engineering began when he was young.
“The first time I ever built something with wheels, I think I rode it down a hill,” he said.
Hannah Martinez-Samuelson, the project manager and a high school senior, said she wants to become an industrial engineer.
“I love being in robotics because I can experiment with project engineering,” Martinez-Samuelson said.
This was the Beauty Bots and the Beast”s first official competition of the year. Their goal was to earn the Idaho Inspire award, which recognizes innovative design and exemplary community service.
“The Inspire Award is supposed to be the team that best represents the state, but no Idaho state team has ever won it here,” Martinez-Samuelson said.
Similarly, Team Delete *.*”s Michael Bean said FTC, and robotics in general, is about more than the spare parts.
“It”s not just engineering,” Bean said. “It”s not just programming. It”s a lot of different life skills,” said Bean.
This year, he said the team learned a lot about compromise and agreeing. Bean said that they have had to divide and conquer, and it”s important to decide which parts of the challenge to do and which parts to ignore. That, he said, can be one of the hardest things.
Even the most ambitious young engineers need help from time to time. This is where coaches like Team Animosus” Ken McDonald come in. This was his second year coaching FTC.
McDonald said his favorite part of coaching is the “lightbulb moment.” For him it occurred earlier this season when Animosus attended a championship in Montana.
“There was an a-ha moment of the team as a whole,” he said. “Those members that were not as engaged and our top members melted together.”
Like many of the teams that attended, it was do or die for Animosus – but they had their heads in the game until the end.
“We”re really encouraged, we”re doing way better than they (the team) thought we would,” said McDonald, “We really surprised ourselves.”
Ewers said he is always impressed by the quality of the FTC competitions.
“This is the premier STEM program for youth, bar none,” Ewers said.
While Ewers said it is an incredible experience, it requires plenty of coordination and communication. He said he owed the success of the event to the volunteers.
“The people who volunteer for this are the people who have their heart in the right place,” he said.
Ewers said FIRST has such an impact on people”s lives that they just keep coming back, and he is always impressed by the quality of people who show up get things done, and get them done right.
It was the end of the road for Team Animosus, which would not make it to the next level. For The Beauty Bots and the Beast, on the other hand, had their dreams come true, and went home with the Idaho Inspire award. They will also advance to the super-regional competition next month in Oakland, California.
For Riebe, though he was pleased to have won the award, he said FIRST competitions are about more than simply robotics – he said he and his team have community service together, and through the program he has learned valuable leadership skills.
As FIRST inspires him to pursue robotics, Riebe said he has also become something of a role model – his six-year-old cousin has become excited about robotics since he saw the work Reibe did.
“Every time I see him, he tells me about the new robot he”s building,” he said.