Iowa City Press-Citizen: Robot Rumble--Students Creations Go Head to Head in FIRST Tech Challenge

Sunday, February 23, 2014
By Holly Hines
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Creative problem-solving and designing a unique robot are two aspects of robot building that Reed Deninger, a senior at Regina Catholic Education Center, said he finds thrilling.

“If you make something unique that works, it is an amazing thing,” Deninger said.

Deninger, a member of Regina’s eight-person FIRST Tech Challenge team called 404: Name Not Found, attended a statewide FIRST Tech Challenge championship Saturday at the Coralville Marriott Hotel and Conference Center.

The fifth annual championship was hosted by a New Hampshire-based charity called FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — as well as Rockwell Collins and the University of Iowa College of Engineering.

FIRST Tech Challenge teams competed in partnerships and pitted their robots against one another. Teams scored points by having their robots complete tasks such as retrieving blocks, raising a flag on a flagpole and lifting themselves off the ground to hang from a pull-up bar.

Students spent the past six months building the robots based on FIRST Tech Challenge parameters.

Rebecca Whitaker, University of Iowa affiliate partner for FIRST Tech Challenge, said about 7,500 students participated in Saturday’s event on 163 teams from schools throughout Iowa.

Whitaker said the FIRST Tech Challenge event has grown since organizers first hosted it in 2010 at the Iowa Memorial Union, when about 150 students participated on about 20 teams.

Whitaker said she thinks the growth is a result of support from the Iowa Legislature, Gov. Branstad, grants from Rockwell Collins and word of mouth.

“I think word of mouth has been fantastic,” she said.

Don Bossi, president of FIRST, said he came to Iowa from New Hampshire to attend Saturday’s championship in part because he’s noticed recent growth in Iowa in terms of STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

“Iowa really stands out as a state that really supports STEM,” Bossi said.

He said Saturday’s championship called for teams to form alliances, an aspect of the competition that encourages teammates to behave graciously and professionally with one another.

Ben Taylor, a student from Waukee Middle School, said knowing his team must rely on another team in competition makes the challenge exciting.

“It’s not just us,” he said.

Taylor said he thinks it makes sense for FIRST Tech Challenge to encourage cooperation, because teams are like robots: if one part doesn’t work, the whole can’t work.