In classrooms in Oklahoma and around the nation, students are waging wars with robotic weapons of the mind.
In Michelle Madison’s class at Edmond Memorial High School, senior Ryan Craig is captaining his team of mind warriors. The mission: to create a robot from a box of random parts that can pick up a plastic exercise ball, toss it over a 5-foot barrier into a hole or into the waiting arms of another hand-crafted robot.
It’s Robot Wars—the brainchild program of the nonprofit organization, Oklahoma FIRST—and the battle is on. Robot Wars is a program in which students across America engineer their own robots and battle them in a round-robin competition. It’s a sport, but it’s a sport of the mind that combines problem-solving, strategic thinking, imagination and creativity.
The Oklahoma FIRST organization offers Robot Wars to spark new interest and excitement in science and engineering among students. As the acronym FIRST denotes, the program strives “For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” As part of the program, students design and engineer their own robots for a regional competition and then the winners compete nationally.
In January, teams receive a box of parts as the only resource to build their robots—no directions are included. Students not only have to conceptualize the design of a working robot, but also build it in only six weeks. Luckily, the thrill of the challenge extends to community engineering mentors from companies like Devon Energy and Dell Computers to guide the young robot enthusiasts in their mission.
“The most challenging thing is being creative enough to actually build the designs your team comes up with,” said Craig, who has been involved in the FIRST Robotics Competition for four years. “It’s hard, but I love building things and love learning how things work.”
For Harold Holley, U.S. FIRST Oklahoma Regional Director, that enthusiasm for engineering and mathematics is the whole point. He hopes it drives students to consider fields in the sciences, but also to develop the logical sections of their brains.
“The FIRST Robotics Competition teaches students lessons about teamwork, problem-solving and future careers, and is a tool to get them interested in careers in math, science, engineering and technology,” says Holley. “It’s a competitive sport of the mind—it combines the excitement of sports with the rigors of science and technology. Students have limited time and resources to design and build their robots. It’s as close to real-world engineering experience as they can get.”
Randy Blackwood and his wife Cheri, teachers at Edmond Santa Fe High School, chose to adopt the Oklahoma FIRST Robotics Competition to help students develop and interest in engineering. “We felt it was an important way to reach out to kids,” said Blackwood.
“Watching the team come together to solve the problem of building a working robotic warrior from scratch is thrilling,” Blackwood said. “This program helps kids build confidence in themselves and teaches them to find unique results.” The experience enlightens the students to the many facets of science, including dealing with a number of different parameters, budget limitations and challenges. “It helps them learn that they can create something,” said Blackwood.
Edmond Memorial High student Tyler Hadley has been involved in the program for four years. Hadley says his strategic thinking skills are improved every year. “You have to use your imagination to come up with a design, and your creativity is engaged and improved,” he said. “The fun part is getting to go the competitions and seeing what the other teams across the country came up with.”
The competitions are as futuristic as the name “Robot Wars” suggests. Hundreds of students control robots approximately five feet tall to battle other robots. The battleground in Oklahoma is at the Cox Convention Center. The energy is electric. The music is pounding. The cheers and jeers of the combating teams are fierce.
A teacher at Edmond Memorial, Michelle Madison, introduced the program to her students in 2008 with their first competition in 2009. That first year, the team won the Motorola Quality Assurance Award for Robustness, and the desire to win was born. “They learn about engineering and design during the process. They work as a team, they learn to keep in budget, to meet deadlines and they gain real-world experience in project design and management,” she said. “And, they have fun doing it.”
The FIRST Robotics Competition features teams from 48 states, four provinces, and 12 countries. The competition is a high-tech spectator sporting event, but is also lucrative. Colleges, universities, corporations and individuals provided over $12 million in college scholarships to FRC participants in 2010 alone. Forty-six teams from Oklahoma competed at the March regional competition in Oklahoma City. The winners advanced to the nationals in St. Louis.
“Many companies find time to volunteer as mentors, because they see what kids gain from this,” said Holley. “They gain an excitement about a sport of the mind. They see future employees at a high school level who are learning what they need to be successful in a strategic project. They see kids excited about science. It’s as exciting as any sport and it’s fun, too!”
For more information about Oklahoma FIRST, visit www.oklahomafirst.org.