Robotics Competition Inspires Future Engineers

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(Photo Courtesy of the University of Utah College of Engineering)
(Photo Courtesy of the University of Utah College of Engineering)
(Photo Courtesy of the University of Utah College of Engineering)

While March Madness is occupying the minds of most sports fans, there’s another competition going on this weekend, and it involves robots.

For the sixth year the U’s College of Engineering will sponsor the Utah Regional FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition. Mark Minor, associate professor in mechanical engineering, said the event is held for high school students around the West, with 53 teams competing to make it into the world championships in April. This year’s theme is “Recycle Rush,” so the robots are made of completely reusable or recyclable material and must stack totes on platforms and dispose of litter in a mock landfill.

The U began its alliance with FIRST Robotics after receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation. It was primarily seen as an outreach activity to secondary schools in the state. But this year the competition is bringing in teams from 11 states and some parts of Canada.

While the U benefits from recruitment opportunities, Minor said it’s more about the participants’ futures.

“We hope that it encourages them to go to the U, but it’s really about careers in science, technology, engineering and math,” he said. “They learn about working on teams; they learn that if things don’t succeed the first time, you have to keep trying and trying again.”

Nicklaus Traeden, now a master’s student in mechanical engineering, attended the robotics event in 2009 and 2010 while a student at West High School. The competition made him consider future career options in mechanical engineering.

“I knew I wanted to go into science,” he said. “I also really like working with my hands and building things, so [this competition] opened doors for me in an area I didn’t know much about before.”

Traeden received his undergraduate degree from the U and helped start a robotics team on campus called RoboUtes, which has competed in NASA competitions. This weekend, he’s leading the opening and closing exercises and informing the audience on how the FIRST Robotics competition works.

The event is free to the public, and Minor expects to see about 7,000 attendees. It begins this morning at 9 a.m. and ends around 6 p.m. The competition continues tomorrow from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and includes special guest Dean Kamen, founder of the FIRST student program.

Deb Williams, volunteer coordinator of the event, sees robotics as a growing field. Utah teams are still relatively new, but they tend to place well each year. Twenty Utah teams are competing this weekend. Williams is most excited for the preparation it gives these students to pursue engineering.

“If you have looked in the newspaper these past couple of months, you hear about the shortage of engineers,” she said. “Utah is a pipeline of industries that need engineers.”

c.webber@chronicle.utah.edu

@carolyn_webber

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