Quad City Times: High School Robotics Teams Compete

By Thomas Geyer
Quad City Times

Davenport West High School freshmen Brandon Seamer, Zack Drumm and twins Ethan and Ben Gabriel watched Friday night as the robot they designed slowly extended its mechanical arm, latched onto its hold, and pulled itself into a hanging position.

It is that hanging position that scores the most points at the FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, Tech Challenge held Saturday at

Davenport West High School. The event is organized by the Quad-City Engineering and Science Council in partnership with Davenport West.

Friday night’s workout was a practice run, Ben Gabriel, 14, said, adding that the four are part of a 10-member team that began working on the robotics competition project in early September.

Ethan Gabriel said that Friday’s practice runs were not only to allow the robot’s two drivers to get in sync, but to test the program’s capabilities to see if anything needed to be fixed.

Thinking back to the start of the school year, Ethan Gabriel said, “We’ve been through numerous designs on the whole project.” Portions of the robotic arm and its grips went through at least three design changes, he added.

The robot looks a bit like a fire truck, fitting because the Blue Grass Fire Department is one of its sponsors.

The entire time of competition totals 15 minutes, Brandon Seamer, 14, said. “Each round is 2½ minutes for four rounds.”

It took the 10 team members a total of 2,930 hours to build the robot. “That’s a lot of time invested for a short competition.”

The main thing is what they’re learning, Zack Drumm said. “There is so much more that goes into this,” he said. “It’s not just science and math, but also learning to work as a team.”

Pat Barnes, program director for Global STEM at Deere & Co., said there are students who look at the competition and think "math — and it’s hard."

“This is hands-on work,” Barnes said. “And kids who get involved thinking they can’t do math, end up doing math. It’s just a back-door to getting them into math via the practical application of mathematical principles.”

The skills the students get beyond math is very important to companies such as Deere, he said. “This is more than robots,” he said. “It’s about developing people and communication skills.

“But it’s also teaching them that technologies and economies are changing all the time and that the rate of change is very fast,” Barnes said. “It’s teaching them to be life-long learners, to remain relevant to the marketplace.

“It’s changing so quickly that 60 percent of the jobs of tomorrow don’t yet exist,” he said.

Jenna Steen, 17, is a member of the Iridium Falcons team. She joined the team last year. The Davenport West junior is on the track and field team, plays in the band and wants to be either an industrial or biomedical engineer.

“My job is to run our team’s outreach,” she said, adding that each team member has a primary job in addition to assisting in design. “It’s not only been a learning experience, it’s been fun.”

Jenna said her team is ready. “We worked to get our robot to hang,” she said. “That’s carries the highest points.”

Maybe all the teams are gunning for that one trick, she said. Nonetheless, she added, competing and looking at other’s ideas will keep it interesting.

Saturday’s event also was sponsored by Deere & Co., Rockwell Collins and the University of Iowa School of Engineering.