Learning Leadership Through Robotics

25 March 2013 Written by  Kim Schuske
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This weekend, hundreds of high school students participated in a regional sporting event at the Maverik Center in West Valley City. But in this competition, the players were robots.

With the sound of a bell, the robots were off, trying to fling Frisbees into four goals at each end of the field.

Forty-four teams from ten states built robots that competed in the challenge, nineteen of which were from Utah. The hard work of designing, building, and testing the robots took over six weeks of intensive collaboration between team members, says Sheyne Anderson of the DaVinci Dragons from Ogden.

Anderson describes how the initial phase of the challenge works. "We drove down to Hunter High in Salt Lake City," he says. "All of the First teams in Utah watch the video together of what the competition is going to be. The rules are released that day. You get your kit of parts. You get to start building your robot from your kit and anything else you want to add to it. And then you have six weeks, and then you have to put it in a plastic bag, close it up, and until the regional you cannot open that bag."

The teams opened those bags on Thursday, and the FIRST Robotics Utah Regional Competition started Friday. In each match, three robots made by three separate teams competed against another set of three robots. To increase their chance of winning, teams had to learn to collaborate. Each team competed in ten matches during the qualifying rounds.

"So far we're doing pretty well," says Alex Terry with the Salt Flat Circuits, Tooele School District. "We learn different things about our robot every match. You learn, 'Oh, we need to tweak this a little bit, or tweak that there.' And you work with three other teams and try to coordinate with each other to get as much points as possible. It's really fun."

She says at first she wasn't really interested in joining the team.

"I don't really get into that whole robot thing. I thought it was, 'Oh, this is really nerdy. This is geeky.' That's not me."

But her brother competed the year before and her father thought she should give it a try.

"So I came up for a meeting and I went with them to the kickoff. And it actually turned out to be really fun and something I became interested in," says Terry. "It's a lot more than just building a robot and programming it. It teaches you many things you can't describe. It kind of changes you as a person."

That's exactly the goal of the program says Richard Anderson, the FIRST Regional Director for Utah.

"It makes a difference in kids' lives. I was a classroom teacher for 38 years and had a team for five, and I recognized and saw a distinct difference in the kids that went through the program."

Anderson says he's seen many students apply themselves, take harder classes, and have a direction after doing FIRST robotics. The reason why the program is so successful, says Anderson, is because anyone can get involved. While students have to build and program the robots, they also have to find sponsors, raise money, and learn to work with a team.

Terry took on the role of treasurer and also did electrical work on the robot.

For Sheyne Anderson, the technical side of building a robot came naturally. It was the other aspects of being on a team that posed more of a challenge.

"I'm a programmer. I sit in the corner. I type and I do my thing on my own. This has forced me to work with other people and that's really also great."

He has been programming the team's robots since ninth grade. Now a senior, he is team captain this year.

"Probably the most difficult thing is being a leader, but it's also something that I've learned to really love. It was something I was totally afraid of last year."

The international program, now in its 24th year, is backed by industry giants such as Micron and Microsoft. Joyce Peters from Hill Air Force base explains why they sponsor the Utah regional event.

"It brings a pipeline of interested kids into colleges and universities," says Peters. "We have to hire between 150 and 200 engineers and computer scientists every year at Hill. And there's a nationwide shortage in computer and electrical engineering graduates, and there's just not enough kids going into it."

According to FIRST Robotics, students that finish the program are more than twice as likely to expect to pursue a career in science than their peers, and 88% go onto college.

During the heat of competition, most participants weren't thinking about how the event might affect their careers. They just wanted their team and robot to do well, and most importantly to have fun. Six teams advanced and will compete in the FIRST Championship at the end of April in Saint Louis, Missouri. The DaVinci Dragons and Salt Flat Circuits will try again next year.


Alex Terry and the Salt Flat Circuits

Sheyne Anderson and the DaVinci Dragons

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