Teens, robots swarming campus for STEM showdown

April 01, 2015 / by / 0 Comment

By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau

More than 30 high school teams from throughout the Southwest will display their brainpower and problem-solving prowess at Grand Canyon University Arena during a robotics competition that rivals some sporting events with the flair of its performers.

The two-day West Regional of the FIRST Robotics Competition showcases some of the most talented high school robot engineers in Arizona and also will include teams from California, Colorado, Idaho, Texas, Utah and Mexico competing for a spot in the world championships and scholarship prizes. The event is free and open to the public beginning at 8:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

The FIRST Arizona Robotics Competition is typically marked by high-energy students and remarkable robots programmed to perform  for the audience. GCU hosts a West regional event Friday-Saturday. (Courtesy of Microchip/FIRST Arizona)

The FIRST Robotics Competition is marked by high-energy students who design robots to perform remarkable tasks. GCU hosts a West Regional event Friday-Saturday. (Photos courtesy of Microchip/AZFirst)

Sponsored by nonprofit AZFirst and Chandler-based Microchip Technology Inc., the competition involves teams of students who receive an assignment and a general kit to build a robot to solve a problem. This year’s theme is related to recycling, and the competition will involve stacking and organizing bins with recyclable materials.

Dr. Tacy Ashby, senior vice president of GCU’s Strategic Educational Alliances, said the University was proud to serve as a regional sponsor for an event that, for years, has fostered public understanding of the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM. Ashby served as an Arizona school superintendent before joining GCU and witnessed first-hand how high school robotics students have the ability to create technology that addresses real-world problems.

“It’s fascinating to see what these young people can develop,” Ashby said. “Think of their potential as they apply that creativity in the future, based on what’s going to benefit society. It’s a wonderful opportunity for GCU but also for the high schools and students that will be able to participate here on campus.”

Student teams, led by volunteer mentors, have only six weeks to design, build and test the robot to make sure it’s equipped to perform assigned tasks. The process often involves additional fundraising to cover retrofitting the robots and having them shipped to competition sites, so students are exposed to a range of skills — namely, the collaborative, problem-solving mindset required of undergraduates in college STEM programs.

Educators involved with the event said the FIRST Robotics Competition also develops students’ critical-thinking, leadership and communication skills, which many high-tech employers seek in new hires.

An event with power, personality

The high-energy event is also a celebration of science and technology. Teens wear colorful costumes and shirts highlighting their self-branded team names, taking any opportunity to show their collective team personalities or the personality of their beloved robots.

For the robotics competition, students receive an assignment and a kit, but have six weeks to prepare their robot to compete.

For the robotics competition, students receive an assignment and a kit and have six weeks to prepare their robot to compete.

The focus of the FIRST competition, to cultivate STEM workforce skills in students before they head to college, directly relates to the development of GCU’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology. The University is offering bachelor’s degree programs in biomedical, electrical and mechanical engineering this fall in addition to a new program in computer programming.

Last fall, GCU rolled out programs in computer science and information technology, and President/CEO Brian Mueller announced the University’s goal to enroll 70 percent of its ground campus students in STEM programs by 2020.

Ashby added that the “vibrant energy” of the FIRST Robotics Competition would mesh well with GCU’s campus community and that visiting high school students eventually could find their way to the University via K-12 pathway programs such as dual-enrollment opportunities, designed to better prepare students for the rigors of college.

The FIRST Robotics Competition aims to emulate real-world engineering, though students definitely face some curveballs and learn how to adjust on the fly.

“It’s a difficult task, especially when you’re given just a kit,” said Haley Peebles, associate director of GCU’s Center for Integrated Science, Engineering and Technology.

“The team has to work together. During the competition, when something breaks on the robot or doesn’t work right, they have to do some quick problem-solving, go back to their pit and try to solve it in an instant.”

Natural fit for GCU Arena

While GCU won’t be developing a robotics-specific academic program, engineering students will be tested in their coursework with collaborative lab assignments that, like the FIRST tournament, are designed to emulate real-world problems.

Many of the students drawn to high school robotics have the “engineering mindset” that GCU seeks to develop on a wider scale through its new programs.

Microchip Technology, the event’s organizing sponsor, began considering GCU as a potential competition site nearly two years ago, before the University had rolled out its new engineering programs. Company organizers said they were thrilled to have GCU Arena as a venue to showcase the academic skills of student competitors, many of whom will study STEM subjects in college.

Carol Popovich, Microchip’s senior STEM outreach programs representative, said the University was seen as a strong fit to host the first-ever FIRST Robotics Competition Arizona West Regional because of its longstanding academic commitment to the sciences and as a training ground for future science teachers.

“The more I heard about the engineering programs, the more exciting it became because it’s just such a natural fit,” said Popovich, who also serves as regional director for FIRST. “The fact that GCU is a teachers’ college is also huge. If you want future teachers to get excited about their careers, send them to a FIRST robotics event. It’s about hands-on education and kids who are excited about learning.”

Teams that win at GCU this week can advance to the FIRST World Championships, scheduled for April 22-25 in St. Louis.

FIRST hosted the robotics competition at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, though the event moved to Hamilton High four years ago. But FIRST quickly outgrew Hamilton, and this is the first year where the event has been split into two regional sites, making it easier for students and families from around the Valley to make it to the event.

Contact Michael Ferraresi at 602-639-7030 or [email protected].

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