The three-day event is a mash-up of sporting event, high school pep rally, Comic Con, and auto race. Energy, enthusiasm, and excitement run rampant as teams prep their robots for this year’s game/challenge.
According to FIRST, each year the competition includes some 2,300 teams comprised of more than 58,000 students from countries including Brazil, Canada, Chile, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, and the U.K., as well as every state in the U.S. One of the goals of the competition is to show teens how exciting technology fields can be as well as offer a real-world venue for kids to hone their skills in science, math, engineering, and invention. The teams also receive guidance from mentors.
Perhaps the most amazing part of the competition is the fact that the teams are told just six weeks prior to the event what the challenge will be, along with a standardized selection of parts to build their robots. Contestants are allowed to augment their robots with off-the-shelf or custom parts using money donated through fundraisers and sponsorships.
Meeting the Makers
Our guide at the event was the very cool and enthusiastic Hanna (age 16), of team Bagel Bytes (a nod to one of the team’s original sponsors). A second-year veteran of the competition, Hanna brought us first to her team’s pits to meet drivetrain specialist Zoe (14), team captain Arielle (17) and the robot himself, Kuzco (named for its resemblance to the character in the 2000 Disney animated film The Emperor’s New Groove. Arielle was polished and poised in telling us about her team, confidently letting us know that last year, the team went to the regional semis in Los Angeles and the Championship in St. Louis, achieving a top 20% ranking. This year, under her watch, we got the feeling that she wanted to do even better.
Hanna next introduced us to The Holy Cows, a team name derived from the sheer number of ideas on a whiteboard during a brainstorm session. THC’s robot was getting ready to roll onto the playing field when Spark visited their pits. There we met team members Kaithlyn (17), Carmel (17), Torstein (17), Cameron (15), and Danielle (16).
One very cool element of THC is that they brought their own mobile machine shop with lathe, press, drills, saws and volunteer operators not just for themselves, but for all the teams. Torstein explained that any team could come up to the truck, explain or draw a pic of what was needed and the machinists would go to work creating or mending a part for the competitors’ bots. At the event THC ended up winning the Regional Chairman's Award.
The last team we met—SuperNURDs (Never Underestimate Robotic Domination)—definitely took the prize for best dressed team, with Superman-inspired T-shirts. In their pit area, we met Aubrey (18) from the team’s business group and Kayla (15), the mechanical lead, who pretty much summed up the feeling at the event: “Being a geek is cool!”
Aubrey, sounding like a true business professional and promoter, felt that her team’s robot had a very good chance to perform well because “Our robot is the most well-rounded,” she said. “It can shoot, climb and defend whereas the others usually do just one of those things.”
Overall, the Spark team was impressed with the enthusiasm, knowledge, graciousness and eloquence all the participants displayed. We kept asking ourselves, are these really teenagers? Moreover it was refreshing to see people just create, invent and engineer for the sheer fun of it. For obvious reasons, participation in programs and events like this should be encouraged by parents and schools everywhere, just like traditional team sports. By doing so, we give our children an infinitely better chance to successfully compete in a tech-driven global marketplace. Yes Kayla, being a geek really is cool. And who knows, one of the participants in this program could be the next Johnny Sokko.
Spoiler alert: As of this writing, THC (aka Team 1538) won the Regional Chairman's Award and is going to the Championship in St. Louis. Congrats and best of luck in April!
Qualcomm is a sponsor of all the San Diego–based teams as well as a sponsor of the Championship event.