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Utah robotics competition teaches students life lessons in collaboration

WEST VALLEY CITY — When you combine video game technology with the principles of business and teamwork, you have an environment fit for fierce competition and high-level learning for eager, intellectually curious high school students striving to be their better selves.

Hundreds of students from Utah and across the U.S. spent the first weekend in March vying for the title of top tech team at this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition. The two-day contest, which took a cue from the world of video games, challenged teams to test their abilities in developing technology through team-oriented collaboration.

Founded in 1989 by Segway inventor and noted entrepreneur Dean Kamen, FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — was created "to inspire young people's interest and participation in science and technology," according to the website.

Globally, more than 3,600 teams featuring over 91,000 students from 27 countries have participated in the program. The regional weekend event, comprised of 52 student teams including participants from Chile, California and Canada, was held Friday and Saturday at the Maverik Center in West Valley City.

This year’s competition was titled “FIRST Power Up” and combined robotics with the world of video games, explained Mark Minor, event chairman and associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Utah.

Teams were tasked with building autonomous, remote-controlled robots to move box-shaped power cubes that control switches and scales in order to face a video game “boss,” he said. The teams receive points by converting power cubes for a video game “power-up,” which is used to their advantage. The team with the most points defeats the boss.

This regional contest was the culmination of a six-week period in which teams designed their projects from scratch and ordered the parts for the robots, then built, programmed and tested the bots, said Stuart Myers, a volunteer mentor for The Provotypes, a Utah County-based competitor. In addition, the teams also had to raise the money to fund the project.

Myers noted that the competition incorporates many aspects of running a business. "You have engineering, you have marketing and you have programming."

The program offers students the opportunity to get a realistic look at what it would be like to work in an actual corporate organization, he said. The kids were able to brainstorm, build, prototype and create a robot, essentially the same way companies develop projects, he said.

"You have an engineering team focused on the mechanical side of things, you have a sub-team focused on the electrical side of things, a sub-team focused on the programming side of things and a sub-team focused on the business side of things," Myers explained. "Just like in the business world, you have these different (departments) of a (corporation) that must work together as a team in order for a corporation to work."

Rookie competitor Brita Szymanski, 17, a junior at Provo High who joined the team on a whim, said the experience has been enlightening, but very different than what she is normally interested in.

"I've never really considered myself a science kind of person. This was a good way to explore different (educational) opportunities," she said. "It's really fun to learn about all these things about the robot and the competition is really fun."

Emery Anderson, 17, a senior at the Academy for Math, Engineering and Science, a charter school located at Cottonwood High School in Salt Lake City, the said program pushed her to become more of a leader and advocate for her team (the AMES Amperes) and own ambitions.

"I'm more confident from (this experience) and able to speak to people," she said. That ability will help her as she strives to achieve her educational goals when she goes to college next year, she added.

"If there's a robotics team at college, I'll definitely join it," Anderson said.

Another competition first-timer, AMES freshman Siena Robinson, 14, said being involved in the competition allowed her to pursue her already established interest in robotics.

"In elementary school, I started off with robotics, then did underwater robotics in junior high and then moved up to this (level)," she said. When the young teen isn't involved in robotics, Robinson said her other passion is competitive synchronized figure skating.

Veteran competitor Tressa Parkes, 16, a junior at AMES, said being a member of the team helped her develop leadership skills "that I wouldn't have gained anywhere else."

"It's impacted me in (showing) me that I have a voice and I can use that voice for positive change within our robotics (program), within our school and within our community," she said.

Minor noted that the program pushes participants to achieve goals that some previously may not have thought possible.

“It is amazing to see what these students accomplish,” he said. “Their teams work like miniature corporations where engineering and business work together to dream up a new robot from scratch that wins the game."

Teams that win the Utah regional competition, along with select award winners, moved on to the FIRST national championship held next month in Houston and in Detroit.