Teens get technical at annual robotics competition

Large crowds packed UW’s Physical Activities Complex March 22, to watch high school students from across North America compete in the 2014  FIRST Robotics Waterloo Regional competition.

The event featured teams from high schools around Ontario, and beyond. Team 254, known as the “Cheesy Poofs” travelled from San Jose, California.

“This is our first year coming to Canada, we’ve never gone internationally for a regional competition before, but there’s a lot of really cool teams that we don’t usually have the chance to compete against, so we came here to compete against those teams, and there’s a lot of rookie teams here, too, that we never get to compete against,” said Steven Pinkerton, president of the “Cheesy Poofs,” who represent Bellarmine College Prepatory school in San Jose.

The teams, made up of students from Grades 9-12, are given the rules of the game chosen for a specific competition, and have six weeks to create a robot based on the criteria of the chosen game.

This year’s concept, the “Aerial Assist” requires competitors to pass a large ball to the robots, which are then required to shoot the ball towards a target. A chosen team member controls the robots from the sidelines, and teams can earn more points as robots pass the ball to each other.

Graham Collie, a Grade 12 student from Team 1114, said that there are various groups within each team, which allow for younger students to get involved in less technical aspects of the competition.

“We allow kids to present their ideas, and not only does it allow the junior kids to have a grasp of what we do, but it also allows for a really well organized meeting where we can brainstorm ideas,” said Collie.

The competition allows for a multidisciplinary approach to creating and building a team, and is structured the same way as any

professional company, requiring  mentors with professional skills to get involved. David Ali, a development manager at aviation and aerospace developer Pratt & Whitney Canada mentored two teams in the competition, and said that they operate the same as the team he leads in the real world.

“What they achieve in the team is very similar to what I do at Pratt & Whitney Canada,” said Ali. “I have a business team, a marketing team, operations team, sales team, engineering team, and we have guys and girls working together to make this happen. And I’ll tell you right now, these two teams do a fantastic job,” he said.

Although all competitors had high hopes of seeing their hard work pay off during the matches, their efforts in building a team had already been rewarded. Besides being hopeful for one of the many awards being given for various categories is the Chairman’s Award, which is up for grabs for teams that have put in the right amount of work behind the scenes.

“The Chairman’s Award, has nothing to do with the robot at all, and everything to do with how the team functions together, how they’re partnering with their communities to raise awareness of the potential and importance of science and technology,” said Rob Gorbet, a board member and competition judge from FIRST.

Gorbet said that the process of building a robot allows teens to find their passion, as well as work ethic.

“I often say that FIRST is not about using people to build robots, it’s about using robots to build people,” he said. “Getting kids involved in programs like FIRST is key to building a strong technical and design workforce.”

The 2014 Waterloo Regionals marks UW’s 10th year hosting the event, with UW donating the “on-campus” costs of holding the competition, as well as staff support. It is also ideal for attracting potential students looking for a robotics-related career.

&ldquo;It&rsquo;s really a win-win situation,&rdquo; said Gorbet. &ldquo;Partnering with Waterloo makes so much sense because these kids are really representative of the kind of students we&rsquo;d like to attract, and hosting the Waterloo Regional has helped put Waterloo on<br />
the map for the FIRST kids internationally.&rdquo;