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UMKC hosts regional robotics competition

Students compete using remote controlled robots. CREDIT // UMKC Robotics Team
Students compete using remote controlled robots.       CREDIT // UMKC Robotics Team

 

The UMKC School of Computing and Engineering hosted the inaugural Greater Kansas City FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) robotics competition in collaboration with the KC STEM Alliance on Sunday, Feb. 3. The event was held in the Swinney Recreation Center, and was free and open to the public.

Both FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and the STEM  (Science Technology, Engineering, and/or Math – Alliance), prepare and encourage students to pursue careers in specialized engineering industries.

Dean of UMKC School of Computing and Engineering and Board Chairman of the KC STEM Alliance, Dr. Kevin Truman, was pleased with the turnout.

“I think it’s just great to see that many students involved in computer science, engineering, and information technology programs like FIRST Robotics,” Truman said. “You know, there are a lot of places for kids to go to play sports, and this provides a real platform for those students who want to use their minds and their mechanical abilities to build a device, with a specific task in mind, which is very much what engineers and computer scientists do.”

STEM students spent months planning for the competition, and had to work together to solve problems and make things work, getting a taste of what they will face when they move on to larger-scale robotic competitions. Qualified middle and high school students from across the Kansas City region competed in the robotics competition.

“It’s a very product-oriented field, and it’s really good to see these students getting engaged in those types of experiential learning activities in middle school and high school. In the past, a lot of times that didn’t happen until they got to college and sometimes, not until they got on the job. And so it’s a whole different way of teaching and exciting kids about STEM careers.”

Compared to other competitions for middle and high school students, the FIRST Robotics Challenge doesn’t end immediately when students lose.

“One of the nice things about the FTC is that even if they fail early in the day, they get a chance to go back and work on their machinery and bring it back later that day and compete again,” Truman said.

Truman explained that sometimes very simple things can happen, such as forgetting to discharge hands of static electricity, but in the FTC, students get the opportunity to correct those mistakes and try again.

Truman said  the challenge “requires that they actually lift these rings three to four feet in the air and put them on these pegs,” which requires that the robots have expandable arms and legs to pick up objects and move them around.

“It sounds easy, but it’s not,” he said. “They have a very short time period to do it.”

“They need to walk around and talk to other teams and form what they call alliances. If your alliance member will let you come over and pick up their robot with your robot, that allows you to get extra points,” Truman explained.

While that may sound easy, Truman explained  that the machines have “to be able to pick up this two-foot by two-foot by two-foot robot, which weighs essentially the same as what your robot weighs. So it’s a little trickier than you’d think.”

Although the teams are competitors in the FTC, they’re also partners.

“It’s not uncommon for them to share tools and share parts, or for somebody to come over and say, ‘Hey we fixed something like that by doing this.’ It happens all the time,” Truman said.

Not only do students get hands-on experience working with technology and problem solving, they get a sense of what their professional field will resemble in the real world through communicating and collaborating. They are able to build their skills and confidence at the same time.

“Out of this group, there were six teams that qualified to go to State Finals,” Truman said.

After this year’s tournament season, which is ongoing in various locations through the month of March, the FTC World Championship will take place in St. Louis, at the Edward Jones Dome during the weekend of Apr. 24. More information can be found at www.usfirst.org or www.kcstem.org.

jturner@unews.com

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