RoboCon in Tampa is geek fest for Florida high school students

10/28/13 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: robots, education, robotics, STEM, engineering, Learning is 4 Everyone


High school students from all over Florida spent six weeks designing and building Frisbee-throwing robots.

photo by Janelle Irwin

The University of Tampa hosted a geek extravaganza this weekend for high school students who build robots. During RoboCon, 50 teams from across the state showcased their engineering skills in what Terri Willingham, the regional director for First Robotics in Central Florida, says is more than just a competition.

“Celebrating science and technology like the way we celebrate sports and entertainment gives kids a reason to feel excited about science and technology.”

The convention features the end result of six weeks of planning, designing and building and nationally offers millions of dollars in scholarship opportunities. The competitions held in cities across the nation Willingham is the program director for that group.

“They’re learning how to do a business plan, how to fundraise, how to create a sustainable team and they’re having a really good time working together.”

She says one of the best tools students walk away from these competitions with is gracious professionalism.

“In any other kind of competitive event, if your opponent suffers some sort of a loss, everybody would go, ‘great, two less opponents I have to worry about.’ When they got to the regional, all the other teams helped them rebuild their robot. The rules were relaxed. They were able to bring in things because you usually can’t build at the event and they were allowed to rebuild their robot, all the teams helped, they got back on the field. They competed and one of the teams that had their robot rebuilt went to the championship in St. Louis.”

Competitions range in age groups from six through eighteen. The younger students work with Legos to design projects and by middle school kids use those plans to create a project with moving parts. The high school competitions feature robots that can be moved by remote control and do thinks like pick things up and throw them. A previous competition used basketballs and the robots shot hoops. This year, Garcia said students were told to design a robot that could shoot Frisbees.

“This was called Ultimate Ascent and the goal was to build these Frisbee-shooting robots that would shoot these Frisbees – they shoot them about 80 feet across this field in two minutes, two and a half minutes. They have a 15 second autonomous where they shoot as many Frisbees as they can without any human intervention and the rest of it is tele-operated.”

In between battles, students crowded the bleachers inside the Bob Martinez Athletics Center at the University of Tampa. Many were decked out in face paint and costumes depicting their respective teams. They danced and cheered for their schools in a deafening roar that spilled outside the building. Tomas Garcia is a student at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg and heads their team 4769 Nerdvana. He’s been competing in robotics competitions through out high school, having started out in California.

“You get to see new places. You get to learn new skills that ultimately can get you into a job that normally, not most people your own age or even going to the same school as you would even think about.”

Local tech companies sponsor teams involved in robotics programs and often recruit former participants to come back and work for them. Not all schools have robotics teams, but the information on how to start programs at schools who aren’t already participating is on the US First website.

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