FIRST Tech Challenge Demonstrates Student Ingenuity

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Competition Showcases Winning Partnerships at Sponsor, Student Levels

Cheering crowds, music, half-time dances and an exuberant set of play-by-play announcers reflected the excitement on the playing field as real science, math and programming problems were being solved during the Maryland FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) Championship Tournament hosted Feb. 23 by the College of Southern Maryland (CSM).

In the state level competition's inaugural year at CSM, 31 teams designed, built and operated intricate, remote-controlled VEX robots on the playing field, hoping for a chance to win a slot in the FTC World Championship, April 17–19, in Atlanta.

Design, functionality, mobility and speed are just some of the components winning robots and the teams that design them possess. Teams are comprised of four main positions: designers, programmers, drivers and a scout, and by day's end form partnerships with other teams in hopes of forming winning alliances.

Building team spirit and generating interest in the math and science fields are the key elements in developing tomorrow's workforce, according to Ken Johnson, director of the FIRST Tech Challenge. “The neat thing about FIRST is that the challenge and nature of the game requires students to work with mentors who are typically local engineers or science, math, engineering or technology teachers. The bonds that are built through this interaction are invaluable. The competitions reward what we call ‘gracious professionalism' which includes showing respect for others even as you are competing like crazy,” said Johnson.

Eleventh-grader Tyrik Chesnut of Team # 388 – TechnoWarriors from Woodlawn High School in Baltimore is one of his team's builder/programmers. “I've always liked electronics and building stuff but I really like how we work together as a team. We each have our own skills, like I like to find out how pieces go together and like to make things work,” said Chesnut.

The high school junior intends to participate in the robotics team next year and hopes other students will consider participating as well. “Don't just look at it as something to do. It is harder than it looks, but when you are doing it, even though you are learning, it doesn't seem that hard,” he said, adding that he is considering engineering as a future career.

Designers, builders and drivers often get all of the glory and press attention at robotics' competitions, but a scout can make or break a team. Freshman J.T. Foster of Team #341, and a scout for his Iron Eagles from Annapolis Area Christian School in Annapolis, concedes, “A scout is basically a team member who spies on other teams with their permission. Scouts check out the other teams and ask specific questions about how their robots work and how they (the scout's team) can improve their robot to make it better.” Foster said scouts try to determine which teams have specific advantages, such as whose robot picks up the plastic rings most efficiently or which robot has greater mobility.

Scouts become particularly important in the alliance selection portion of the competition in which three teams combine to form an alliance. The scouts provide the captain with information on each of the team's strengths and weaknesses, and suggest teams with which it would be the most advantageous to align. “Developing a functioning robot takes a lot of hard work, but alliances force you to work together and merge team strengths into one (cohesive) team,” said Foster.

The FTC holds events in 31 regions, featuring more than 800 teams with more than 8,000 students. During the Maryland FTC Championship Tournament at CSM, high school teams from throughout Maryland including St. Mary's and Charles counties, Pennsylvania, Virginia and even Sweden maneuvered their robots and attempted to pick up and place as many as 50 available rings on single, paired or side team or alliance goals in order to win points. Their goal was to move to the finals, and hopefully obtain a shot at FIRST robotics glory.

Such competitions are more than just one-day events as they also are among the initial steps that lead toward a successful STEM career, according to Zach Stachelczyk, Daniel Logan and Tim Miedzinski. The former members of the RoboBees 836A team from the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center in Leonardtown returned from University of Maryland Baltimore County and Virginia Tech to serve as judges for the FIRST Tech Challenge because their high school robotics experiences have influenced their college, discipline and career choices. “Helping build (the robots) and design the parts was amazing. [My high school experience] helped me pick a better college because I was able to get hands-on experience in the field, so I could make an informed choice,' said Stachelczyk.

“Personally, I always knew that I wanted to be an engineer but I didn't know exactly what an engineer did. I started with electrical engineering (in high school) but found it wasn't right for me, so I switched to mechanical, which I love. I am now studying mechanical engineering at college and the experience I gained has given me an advantage over other students at my school,” said Miedzinski. He added that he was more confident in his degree choice and he felt freer to explore ideas in his college lab assignments.

“I took Mr. Buddenbohn's robotics class and fell in love….it has helped me find a job with the Navy civil service, flying UAV (unmanned aeronautical vehicles). So I am here (today) giving back to the program that got me started,” said Logan.

Of the 31 teams that participated in the Maryland FTC Championship Tournament, seven teams came from St. Mary's or Charles County in Maryland. Local sponsors have helped CSM develop its robotics offerings from the Lego Robotics competition two years ago to the current FIRST Tech Challenge and the numerous Kids/Teen College offerings in the summer, according to Jeff Tjiputra, chair of CSM's technical and industrial studies program and organizer of the FIRST Tech Challenge.

“We really couldn't have done this without the help of our sponsors. Each one goes out of their way to help these students, whether it's purchasing robotics kits, sponsoring and mentoring a team, assisting with the program, serving as referees or just telling the community about what we are doing and how it is changing students' lives,” said Tjiputra.

Sponsors of the Maryland FIRST Tech Challenge were:

  • TIME Center
  • Energetics Technology Center
  • Charles County Technology Council
  • The Patuxent Partnership
  • College of Southern Maryland Foundation
  • 836 Robobees, Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center
  • Cyber Knights FLL Team 4160
  • Apple Spice Junction
  • Johnston & Associates
  • VEX Robotics Design System

Among the day's winners was Team # 754 – Autonomous Anonymous, from Great Mills High School, Great Mills, which won the final match of competition and the FIRST Tech Challenge Winning Alliance Award. The Great Mills High School Team now has an invitation to compete in the world championship. They are one of 100 teams scheduled to compete for dozens of awards sponsored by companies and organizations such as Motorola, Johnson and Johnson, General Motors and Underwriters Laboratories.

Other local winners included Team # 758 – Annihilators from Thomas Stone High School in Waldorf which won the FIRST Tech Challenge Finalist Alliance Award.

“I view it as an investment. Why invest in the stock market, you never know what it is going to do. You invest in robotics and you are guaranteed to get interested students who are going to pursue college degrees and come back to look for jobs. If you are an active sponsor you are going to be attending events…you're already going to know the type of person they are and whether you want to hire them. So you are helping your company at the same time,” said Miedzinski.

For a complete list of participating teams, award results and photos, visit http://ftc.csmd.edu/.

For information onhow you can join or sponsor a FIRST Robotics Team contact your local high school or Jeff Tjiputra, 301-934-7556 or 301-870-2309, Ext. 7556 for Charles County; 240-725-5499, Ext. 7556 for St. Mary's County or 443-550-6199, Ext. 7556 for Calvert County or JeffT@csmd.edu.

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