Cedar Rapids Gazette: Rooting for Robots

Monday, January 11, 2010

Web Note:  The University of Iowa College of Engineering appreciates the support of its corporate partner and official national FIRST Tech Challenge sponsor, Rockwell Collins, Inc., in the inaugural FIRST Tech Challenge in Iowa.

Watch KCRG-TV video:  www.kcrg.com/news/local/81069767.html?video=YHI&t=a

By Chris Earl

IOWA CITY — When curious kids are 4 years old, they may play Hungry Hippos.

Once those kids hit 10, they may thrive at the Pop-A-Shot mini-basketball game.

Once they hit high school age, the same students can use a little of each game to take steps toward engineering.

Hundreds of high school students brought their brains, their schemes and their rooting sections to the University of Iowa Memorial Union on Saturday for the FIRST Tech Challenge Iowa Championship. Two dozen teams offered robots up for the scrutiny and pressure that comes from months of preparation.

Many of the participants said they have had a passion for programming robots since they were at the age of playing Hungry Hippos.

“Since I was about 4 or 5,” said Sam Arsanjani, 15, of Fairfield, when asked how long he has been interested in robotics. “It’s been a long time for me as I’ve always been programming. I hope to make it into a career.” Arsanjani said he started a robotics class at his high school. His team was easy to spot as the fedorawearing young men wore shirts and ties while tugging their robot, named “Optimus Prime”.

“I started coding in fifth grade and I’ve always been into robotics so I decided to join,” said Daniel Riechers, 16, of Mount Vernon.

Teammate Steven Gruber-Miller, 16, said their robot, named “Rocky”, was ready for Saturday’s challenge but the work was endless.

“We spent pretty much all year building this robot, testing the designs and seeing what didn’t work,” Gruber-Miller said.

In an environment complete with musical introductions, referees in striped shirts and about 20 judges keeping their eyes on the action, the high school students were able to show off their creations, three minutes at a time.

The game involving the robots is called “Hotshot” and it is played in a 12-foot square field. Up to four robots are split into two teams. The goal is for the human-controlled robots to gather up Wiffle balls, like in Hungry Hippos, and launch them through a hole, like PopA-Shot. Video boards, with overhead cameras for the field of competition, beamed the live action throughout the hall.

“It’s interesting in how, when I was younger, we had different things to get us interested,” said UI College of Engineering Dean Barry Butler. “With the LEGOS and robotics, it’s opening up a lot of avenues for people.” Butler pointed to the demand in the United States for engineers and technology experts. “We all know kids thrive on competition and doing this is outstanding,” he said. Plenty of that competition filled the IMU as teams came from as far away as Spencer and even near St. Louis.

Butler said the school has set up tours of the University of Iowa so the students can learn more about what college students do when they are involved in engineering.

Saturday’s First Tech Challenge at the IMU also had teams competing for eight special awards, including the prestigious Inspire Aware and the Rockwell Collins Innovate Award.