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FIRST Robotics regional returns to Denver April 3-5

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Denver’s forecast for Thursday features an 80% chance of rain and a 100% chance of… robots. The first part of this prediction could easily fall through, but your Denver Space Industry Examiner personally guarantees the second part.

This weekend, 52 high school robotics teams will compete in the 11th annual Colorado FIRST Robotics regional competition on the campus of Denver University. The field this year consists of 39 Colorado teams, 12 teams from nine other states, and one team all the way from the United Arab Emirates.

As in past years, the Examiner contacted each of the teams bound for the Colorado Regional and asked them to describe their programs, challenges during the build season, memorable past experiences, and expectations for the upcoming regional. Two teams took valuable time off from their busy build season to reply, and their insightful responses appear later in the article. So keep reading!

This year's game: Aerial Assist!

Since the theme of the game changes every year, robot design decisions must change too. A winning strategy or key mechanical component one year could turn into a liability the following year. By constantly changing the goals of the game, the organizers attempt to make each season a unique learning opportunity for the students who design and build the robots.

Important robot capabilities this year include the ability to grab a 2-foot diameter medicine ball, pass the ball to a teammate, shoot the ball into high or low goals, or launch the ball over a truss at midfield (perhaps to a teammate catching it on the other side). None of these capabilities were important last year, when robots played the game by shooting frisbees and climbing towers. Cooperation is critical this year; teams earn bonus points if all three robots on an alliance touch/pass the ball prior to scoring.

Robots can also earn bonus points if they autonomously score a ball during the first ten seconds of the match. Additional autonomous bonus points are awarded to robots that drive forward and/or score in a “hot goal,” a goal lit by lights (therefore camera input is important during the first ten seconds of each match).

A complete description of the game and rules can be found on the FIRST website. While you’re looking around, check out this year’s game animation video.

FIRST is all about student potential

For students aspiring to attend college, FIRST continues to be a prime source of experience and funding. The FIRST website can help students apply for over $19 million dollars in college scholarships. While these scholarships benefit incoming college students financially, the technical and project management experiences can be worth far more.

Sometimes knowing what you want to do - or what you don’t want to do - is nearly as important as actually doing it. College students able to match their interests and skill set to a target degree before entering college are far more likely to breeze through their programs with minimal churn. For gaining this knowledge at an early age, nothing beats hands-on mentorships… and that’s what FIRST is really all about.

Beyond the scholarships and hands-on experience, students gain pride and confidence building a complex robot and watching it compete. For some humbling insights into what this competition means to the students, check out this article about the newest and farthest team competing this year, the Arabian Knights from the UAE.

Denver’s Mile High robo-madness returns

The Colorado Regional has moved back a week this year. This poses challenges for some of the local teams because the tournament no longer coincides with spring break. Nevertheless, an expanded slate of 52 teams have registered for the event, up from 48 last year.

The location remains the same: Magness Arena, on the campus of Denver University. The event is open to the public, and admission is free. Thursday is a practice day, but qualifying matches and the final tournament will run from 9:00am through 4:00pm on Friday and Saturday.

This is a family-friendly event, so bring your kids. As you root for your favorite teams, share the excitement of the students who have worked so hard to build a competitive robot. Examiner’s Hint: if loud music irritates you, bring earplugs!!

Let’s take a closer look at some of the 52 teams competing in Denver. Your Denver Space Industry Examiner asked each team five questions about their build season, and several team responses can be found in this article from two years ago (note, team 399 will not compete in Denver this year). Two additional teams offered new responses, sharing their thoughts below.

Team 4293, Highlands Ranch, CO (YEA!): Rookie all-stars now in their third season.

Kathryn Bacon on team 4293 (Highlands Ranch) shares some of the lessons their team has learned. Now in their third season, they have already won more awards than some of the most experienced teams and are looking to add to their successes. Best of all, it sounds like they have kept a great attitude.

Q1: How many students participated on your team this year? How many years have you been involved in FIRST Robotics? How many graduates (or percentage) have pursued advanced degrees in engineering or other related fields?

About 20 students participated on our team this year. We are a new team and have only had one student graduate, and she is currently working on a degree in mechanical engineering. So far we are at 100%.

Q2: How would you describe FIRST Robotics to someone in the general public? What's it all about?

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a program that provides students around the world with a hands-on engineering learning experience that they could not obtain in a regular classroom setting. FIRST not only teaches vital skills to future engineers and innovators, but also teaches the values these students will need to succeed in the industry and become positive role models in their communities. My dad once told me that, in order to truly succeed in anything in life, I needed to be skilled in my field, but I also needed strong values. FIRST is one of the very few programs out there that teaches both skills and values.

Q3: What's your most heart-touching FIRST story or memory? What's the funniest thing that has happened to your team during the build season or at a competition?

For me, the most heart-touching moment in FIRST was when our team won the Rookie All-Star Award two years ago. When our team started, the students were all kind of shy kids who kind of liked engineering but didn't know what we were supposed to do. The mentors warned the students that the competition was hard, but encouraged the team to pull together and work hard and try our best. Even though everyone tried, it was still confusing and discouraging. I was amazed at the support that came in from the other teams. They helped with award submissions, strategy, etc. The team set goals and everyone became close friends. I am still very good friends with everyone who was on the team that year. At the competition, it all seemed to come together. The robot was working, the judge's interviews were going well, and everyone seemed to be having a great time. I was shocked and so happy when we won the Rookie All-Star award!

Q4: What challenges have you faced during this build season? Have you overcome these challenges? If so, how?

This build season our two main challenges were time and design. While our team is improving at budgeting our time each year, we still have a ways to go. We like to over-think things rather than just building them. As for design, we had a design picked out by week 2, but after testing it realized that it popped the medicine balls that will be used in the competition. We had to change our design plan completely. In the future, we will try to look at our designs more carefully.

Q5: What message would you share with the other teams or spectators in Denver?

I am on a fairly new team, so there's not a lot of advice I could give to other teams. FIRST is a great program and it is exciting to watch! Stick to it and learn from it. Engineering can be such an exciting and fun field.

Team 2972, Lafayette, CO (RC Dawson): Doing work you can truly be proud of.

Logan Gafner, a student on team 2972, shares valuable experience regarding endless prototypes… and also the importance of “winning” your build season. RC Dawson has been a strong competitor for six seasons.

Q1: How many students participated on your team this year? How many years have you been involved in FIRST Robotics? How many graduates (or percentage) have pursued advanced degrees in engineering or other related fields?

We have 23 students signed up on the team, around 15 of those have shown true dedication to the team. Our team was founded in 2008, and I personally have been with it for three years. We’ve had many of our graduates enroll in prestigious schools in order to pursue careers in STEM, as a percentage we have around 75% of our students enroll in those fields.

Q2: How would you describe FIRST Robotics to someone in the general public? What's it all about?

FIRST Robotics is a student run organization focused on prototyping, designing, building, and perfecting a robot in a six week build period. But there is also much more than that, there is an entire background to the team that focuses on supporting the team, as well as inspiring students to follow their dreams of careers in science and technology.

Q3: What's your most heart-touching FIRST story or memory? What's the funniest thing that has happened to your team during the build season or at a competition?

Our team does tend to work very very late on many nights, but there’s nothing better than being able to climb back into your car and drive home knowing you’ve done work that you can truly be proud of. If I had to pick my favorite moment from FIRST it would have to be from last years regional, where we were chosen to play for the 8th seeded alliance. During the last match we played, we strapped a piece of polycarb onto the top of the tallest robot in our alliance in order to block the opposing team’s beast of a robot. This actually turned out to be so effective that the other alliance had to use their other two robots in order to keep our one defensive robot away. To this day it still makes me smile that something we strapped onto a robot in 10 minutes almost shut down a whole alliance who had spent six weeks working tirelessly on their robots. We still lost but dang it was funny.

Q4: What challenges have you faced during this build season? Have you overcome these challenges? If so, how?

Our team has always had the problem of spending too much time prototyping, and we almost succumb to that same fate this year. Fortunately our captain recognized it in time this year and worked tirelessly with the other leaders and I to solve that problem via creating strict goals and deadlines. Now that we have set up these procedures we hope to avoid the same problems in the future.

Q5: What message would you share with the other teams or spectators in Denver?

If I could share something it would be most importantly to have fun at the competitions, I’ve found its better to “win” your build season and simply enjoy the competitions! You’ve earned it at that point.

Recap of Colorado Regional details:

Dates: April 4-5 (with a practice day on April 3)

Times: 9:00am – 4:00pm each day, approximately

Location: Magness Arena at DU (in the Ritchie Center)

Public entry fee: FREE!

Good luck, teams!

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