Iowa City Press-Citizen: FIRST Tech Challenge Brings Robots, 1,300 People to Coralville

By Zach Berg
Iowa City Press-Citizen

A crowd of 1,300 people, and a collection of 72 robots, gathered Saturday in Coralville to take part in a statewide robotics competition.

The First Tech Challenge Iowa Championship, hosted inside the Coralville Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, brought the teams from dozens of communities across Iowa on Friday and Saturday to compete in head-to-head competitions.

Rebecca Whittaker, Iowa Affiliate Partner for First Tech Challenge, said the competition featured robotics teams from high schools across Iowa. The teams had advanced from more than 200 First Tech Challenge teams across the state by winning smaller competitions throughout Iowa.

Each group, including the Center Point-Urbana High School team that calls itself High Voltage, designed a robot capable of competing head-to-head with other robots.

Matt Hearn, 14, of High Voltage, said his robot, named Sparky, had a remote-controlled arm and plow so it can push specified buttons, collect debris, deposit debris into containers and scale a metal mountain. Each completed task earns a team points. Whichever team gets the most points wins.

With dozens of matches held throughout the day, bleachers were added around the three rings inside the conference center's main room. Hundreds of parents, siblings and friends cheered as though they were watching a sporting event.

"I want to go into the engineering field, so this is a fun way to do it," Hearn said about why he joined High Voltage.

High Voltage was founded by Hearn's mother, Paulette, years earlier so her engineering-inclined daughter, Elizabeth, had a fun way to hone her engineering skills. Elizabeth is studying at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, her mother said.

"It's very rewarding; it's great to see your kids grow as public speakers, as thinkers. It teaches young people to work together," she said. Before competition, students had to discuss, and explain, to judges how they built their robot, which helped developed her children as public speakers.

Winners on Saturday advance to the regional championship March 17-19 in Cedar Rapids. That championship, Whittaker said,  includes robotics teams from 13 states.

Whittaker said that Iowa had more First Tech Challenge teams — 213 — than most states,  because most teams were able to receive sponsorship.

Because of their partnership with the University of Iowa's College of Engineering, sponsorships from Rockwell Collins, MidAmerican Energy and John Deere, and money from Gov. Terry Branstad's Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Advisory Council, teams received money to get parts needed to make a robot.

"Iowa has exceeded the rate at which this type of competition grows nationally, because of the support we get," Whittaker said. "These kids are very fortunate to have the support they do, because not every state has it."