Robotics contest emphasizes cooperation and competition

Thurston County, Vancouver, Wash., students put long hours, creativity to the test Saturday

ahobbs@theolympian.comJanuary 12, 2014 

Dozens of budding engineers duked it out Saturday in a robot battle that required brains and mechanical brawn.

The FIRST Tech Challenge Interleague Championship featured 30 teams from two leagues that competed at Jefferson Middle School in Olympia. Students came from across Thurston County and the Vancouver, Wash., area. The top eight teams advanced to the state championship Jan. 26 in Issaquah.

Students spent months — during and after school — building the robots from scratch. The box-shaped four-wheeled robots can cost between $800 and $1,500 to construct.

Then it’s time to battle. Each match consisted of three phases in which two teams tried to outscore and outmaneuver each other. The teams controlled two robots apiece inside a ring as they collected blocks and loaded them into baskets.

In the first phase, known as the Autonomous Period, the robots performed tasks with programmed instructions. In the second phase, the students manned the controls to collect the most blocks. For the third phase, known as End Game, students directed robots to either raise their team’s respective flags or have their robot extend its metal arms and hang from a pull-up bar.

One mantra of the competition was “gracious professionalism.” Students refrained from trash-talking opponents and instead worked hard to make everyone else better. The camaraderie paid off for some teams, who were selected to join top finishers as part of an alliance in the final rounds.

The robotics program falls in line with a curriculum dubbed STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math. The program also promotes teamwork and problem-solving skills.

“Our motto with all of our programs is helping our students grow from being consumers of technology to creators of technology,” said organizer Randy Steele, the STEM coach and technology coordinator for Olympia schools.

Ryan Zimmerman, 15, was captain of Capital High School’s Broken Motors team. These first-time competitors stayed up until 3 a.m. to prepare their robot for Saturday’s matches. The team improved as the day moved forward.

Zimmerman credits the robotics program for shaping his outlook on the future.

“It’s preparing you for your career,” said Zimmerman, who said he hopes to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study electrical engineering. “We want our hours and hours of work to do something to help another team. We just want to contribute to a win.”

Thurston County teams advancing to state are BGIP from Avanti High School, Oly Cow from Olympia High School, and DERPA, also from Olympia High. The DERPA team was the Olympia League champion.

In addition, judges awarded the Oly Cow team with the Think Award for its engineering design process, and granted the best new team award to the T-Wolf team from Shelton’s Oakland Bay Junior High School.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 ahobbs@theolympian.com

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