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Robots Face Off in FIRST Tech Challenge at UVM

Competitors ready their robots at the FIRST Tech Challenge, hosted by UVM's College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences Feb. 23. (Photo: Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist)

The global sensation FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) made its inaugural appearance in Vermont on Feb. 23 in the UVM Davis Center with an all-day cooperative competition sponsored by the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.

With two berths up for grabs in the world championship, which will take place in St. Louis in April, twenty-eight high school-based teams from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Michigan and Vermont took to the playing fields with their creative robots which were designed specifically for the annual challenge. The Vermont teams were: Essex High School/Center for Technology, Essex; U32 (East Montpelier); Lyndon Institute (Lyndon); Champlain Valley Union HS (Hinesburg); and Windham Regional Career Center (Brattleboro).

President Thomas Sullivan opened the competitive robotics matches following a video message from Governor Shumlin. After nearly fifty matches, the Cougars from Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey emerged as the winners of the Vermont Championship, while scoring one of the highest point totals in the country this year.

The FTC platform features teams competing in alliances head-to-head, robot-against-robot, as they work to maneuver around the 144-square-foot playing field to acquire and strategically relocate colored plastic donuts on a three-dimensional structure reminiscent of tic-tac-toe board. While most of the robots' decision making is done by the drivers, who are connected by game controllers, there is also an autonomous period where the pre-programmed robots try to use sensors to locate an infrared beacon.

The teams' technological sophistication was cheered by the audience.

"Almost," was heard many times by commentator Kristin Winer, followed by, "Great job!" during the FIRST@UVM held on the Davis Center's fourth floor. A large screen displayed images from a strategically placed camera that featured the two centered playing fields as audience members heard blow-by-blow details of the combat. A live video stream was also available online for viewers across the U.S. and the world.

"The competition was truly exciting to watch," said Doug Dickey, who oversaw the event. “The challenge allows students to show their innovation as they overcome the larger problems of the competition. The most difficult challenge was shooting due to variables that could not be controlled. Teams won or lost depending upon decisions being made ringside of the court.”

“This the best type of learning environment," said Olaf Verdonk from Champlain Valley Union High School and team captain for Team Robo Hawk, considered the underdogs in the event. “These types of challenges contain teamwork skills and problem-solving skills that are key to student success in college and the business world.”  

“The FTC provides students an opportunity to apply the mathematics and science skills they are learning in a fun and challenging competition,” says Armando Vilaseca, Vermont Commissioner of Education. "It is an opportunity for them to blend their science and technology skills in a team oriented fashion that requires them to work together to achieve their goal.”

“The FIRST Challenges produce the type of student mindset that leads to great solutions; not just technical ones, but solutions for society,” says John Abele, Vice Chairman of FIRST. “The only way to win is to collaborate with your competitor.”

Prior to arrival, teams worked hard and spent long nights creating their robots. FIRST@UVM provided a basic robotics kit to each team registered in early October 2012 that allowed teams to be creative in design within the FIRST robotic rules. Some teams added arms with claws that could grab the rings like hands; other teams created arms that spurred and moved multiple rings at a time; and some robots created arms that tossed the rings in the air to get them onto the center frame.  

The goal of FIRST is to motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math while building knowledge, self-confidence, and collaborative life skills. Founded more than twenty years ago by inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST now attracts more than 250,000 youth and more than 100,000 mentors, coaches and volunteers from more than 50 countries around the world.