FIRST Robotics Competition Comes to OSU

P1060651Many Corvallis students are gearing up their robots and getting ready to rumble; there is after all a competition and it is the brainchild of Segway inventor Dean Kamen, no less. The competition is a mouthful, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), but the goal is noble, to spark interest in math and engineering among young people through exciting, sports-style robotics competitions.

In this robotics competition, teams of high school students and adult mentors work to design robots and compete against other teams. OSU will host a district event on Friday, April 4 and Saturday, April 5 at Gill Coliseum. The public is invited, and as many as 30 teams are registered to participate.

‘The Sport of the Mind’
Once the new game challenge is unveiled in January, teams have only six weeks to build, program, and test their robot before the competition. Gabriel Gonzales, a freshman on the Crescent Valley team, says, “You have to learn to work with each other really fast.”

The battery-powered robots weigh about 120 pounds, and most are a couple of feet tall. Students control their robots using joysticks and a computer interface. This year the game involves large yoga-style balls that the robots must pass to each other to score maximum points. The competitions are intense two- or three-day events held in sports arenas or college facilities. “It’s exciting seeing what you built perform during competition,” Josh Pauls, another CV student, says.

The FIRST Community
Both on and off the playing field, FIRST teams cooperate and treat each other with respect and courtesy. CHS senior Kevin Tegan says that this means being polite, professional, and “knowing you’re part of a team.” Backstage at competitions, where students prepare their robots for the next match, teams help each other out. “It’s not Beavers versus Ducks,” says Pauls. “All the local teams cheer for each other.” When the Santiam Christian High School team qualified for the championship event in 2012, all the local teams pitched in to help fundraise for the trip.

Kieran Prince, a CHS junior who started in FIRST LEGO League (FLL) before high school, explains that he and several other team members mentor two FLL teams in Washington state. He says it’s been exciting to help younger students develop enthusiasm for science and technology, and teaching is a great way to learn: “When you are in that position of being responsible for someone else’s education, it makes you work harder.” Tegan says, “Freshman year I had no idea what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t very social. FIRST helped me build up my social life around things that are good.”

Investing in the Future
Cypress Casprowiak, who works on scouting, business, and software for CHS, says, “It’s definitely opened my eyes to the STEM world.” Madison Headley, CHS’s software co-lead, agrees. “FIRST really focused me on computer science,” she says. “It made me realize that hey, I actually can do it.” She says of being a girl on the CHS team, which has a higher-than-average percentage of female students, “It’s been a positive experience—this team is one of the best teams to be on for that reason. It feels really great to be a part of this team.” Gonzales says, “Robotics is a lot of fun.”
Annie Smith says of her four years on CV’s team, “I think this is more worthy than actual school—you learn so much more, and it’s about real-life experience.” Christopher Wohlwend, the other software co-lead for CHS, takes a break from fine-tuning their robot’s autonomous programming to report, “At school everything is in the abstract. Here you’re just given a challenge and told ‘Solve it, good luck!’ You encounter a lot of problems that you wouldn’t in school.”

In the end, though, students are investing time in their robotics teams just because they enjoy it. “What other place do you learn as much as this and have as much fun? Nowhere,” says Prince. Headley says of the OSU district event, “If you don’t come for the robots, come for the happy people.” Tegan adds, “If you want to be part of the future of innovation, that’s where it is.”

By Bethany Carlson