Utah FIRST Tech Challenge teams building more than robots

Monday , December 14, 2015 - 9:03 AM

 OGDEN — Imagine a world in which all of the teams invited to the state high school football playoffs held their practices together. They shared strategies, opened their playbooks to opposing coaches, even loaned players to one another when the need arose.

Now replace the football players in this scenario with robots, and you’ve got a sense of what Utah FIRST Tech Challenge is all about.

On Saturday, Dec. 12, a dozen teams from Northern Utah — composed of incredibly smart junior high and high school students — gathered in the Ogden High School gymnasium for a “Build Day/Scrimmage.” Each team worked on a robot designed to accomplish a series of tasks assigned for this year’s challenge. It’s all building toward the Utah FIRST Tech Challenge championship event, planned for Feb. 19-20 at Weber State University.

“They’re trying to build robots to solve the problems on the playing field,” explained organizer Dana Dellinger, director of outreach for the College of Engineering Applied Science and Technology at Weber State.

But lest you think this is all about winning, organizers stress the importance of something they call “gracious professionalism.” Meaning, despite the fact teams compete to win, it’s less about the final score and more about helping one another learn.

It’s something they call “coopertition,” a portmanteau of “cooperation” and “competition.”

“Everybody helps each other,” marveled Zac Hirschi, advisor for the Ben Lomond High School robotic team. “This is the first competition I’ve seen where everybody shares, no matter what team they’re on.”

Justin Hart, who helps Dellinger run the Northern Utah FIRST program, says the students embrace the idea.

“I’ve been at competitions where a team’s robot breaks down right before the final event and the opposing teams will come together to help them repair it.”

FIRST is a national organization started by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway. FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” attempts to interest and inspire young people to participate in science and technology. There are about 35 FIRST teams in the state.

Every season, there’s a new challenge for teams to work on. This year’s challenge is “FIRST RES-Q,” in which teams build a robot that — among other things — can recognize colors, collect and deposit “debris” on an obstacle-filled ramp, and climb and hang from the top of that ramp. It all has to be done with a robot that would fit into an 18-by-18-by-18-inch cube.

“We call it a sport for the brain,” Dellinger said. “It brings in a lot of kids who aren’t into things like football or soccer but they get to learn to be on a team, and learn skills like cooperation.”

This is the fifth year of FIRST competition in Utah. Dellinger said Saturday’s build day brought a nice mix of 7th- to 12th-grade students, from charter, public and home schools. Ultimately, the goal is to interest young people in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.

Dellinger was happy a number of girls participated in the event; she says it can be difficult to interest them in STEM education.

“It’s exciting. We have one all-girls team here today, and one mostly girls team,” she said.

And Hart said events like this will help students in the long run.

“It opens so many doors for these students,” he said. “Having this FIRST Tech Challenge on their resume almost guarantees them an interview with a technology company when they’re older.”

On Saturday, the all-female Skeleton Crew team from West High School (Salt Lake City) was busy making improvements to its robot. The team recently won a FIRST Tech Challenge in Montana but are in the process of building a second, better robot for the Utah competition.

“We just wanted something that worked in Montana,” said Jackie Hall, 15. “Now, we want it to be perfect.”

Teammate Ellie Vandel, 14, said coming to these build days really helps.

“You exchange ideas, you help people and you learn how to teach people,” she said.

“And then they teach us,” added teammate Eva Pronovost.

Hirschi said they’ve partnered with the YMCA, which helps fund the Ben Lomond team’s robot. Good thing, too, because they’re using two robotic kits to build theirs, at a cost of about $500 each.

Hirschi says the Scots’ team last year participated in the championship at Weber State. How did they do?

“Well, we didn’t take last,” he said, smiling. “We finished 22nd out of about 30 teams.”

Seth Perkins, a junior at Ogden High School, explained why he was participating in the FIRST Tech Challenge.

“It’s where we’re headed as a country,” he said. “And it’s fun to do. Plus, robotics is consistent. Unlike English.”

There was plenty of that “coopertition” to be found at Saturday’s build day. Over at the Morgan High School table, students were helping Ogden High program its robot. (The robots are controlled via smartphone.)

“For me, I love to design things,” said Adam Phelps, a junior at Morgan High School. “I saved up for two years to buy a 3-D printer, so I could design things.”

And that 3-D printer is getting plenty of use. Phelps designed and printed a gizmo that will allow their robot to grab the bar at the top of the ramp and suspend the robot in air. He’s hopeful it will help his team emerge victorious in February.

“We want to win, sure,” Phelps said. “But the real goal is to help each other and to learn more.”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.

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