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Students Do Battle with ‘Bots, Steampunk Style

District Competition Features Airship Pilots


Busy ‘bots, moving gears and quick-thinking pilots converged at the For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology (FIRST) Robotics district finals at East Kentwood High School recently.

Thirty-nine robotics teams, from as far north as Traverse City, south as Niles and east as Detroit, put their robots to the test during the STEAMworks competition that challenged students to get the gears turning. Twenty-two district events are held in Michigan each year, with each team attending two. Teams earn points to qualify for state finals, which began this week and end Saturday, April 15 at Saginaw Valley State University. From there, teams will advance to world finals in St. Louis, Missouri.

Grandville High School sophomores practice before competition
Grandville High School sophomores practice before competition

Of 450 Michigan teams, 160 advance to state finals. Qualifiers from Kent County public schools included: the Comets from Forest Hills high schools; East Grand Robotics from East Grand Rapids High School; D-Cubed from Innovation Central High School in Grand Rapids Public Schools; Red Storm from East Kentwood High School; and Code Red from Grandville High School. (For results from other districts in robotics and other competitions, see Mind Sports Roundup.

Each year FIRST students are given a new challenge. This year teams built robots – to complete a “steampunk” themed game on the competition floor – that can bring gears to an airship, and then shoot “fuel” (balls) into the airship to power it.

Students Take the Field

Teams had six weeks to design and build their ‘bots. For the first time ever, students served as pilots of airships, joining the action on the field and adding a new dimension to the game.

“It’s nice you get to see the field from a new view,” said Grandville High School junior Thomas Bos, who likes problem-solving and traveling during robotics.
“There’s a lot going on. You have to watch yourself and other robots.”

The action on the field involved pilots for the first year ever
The action on the field involved pilots for the first year ever

As at many FIRST competitions, students dressed the part of the STEAMworks theme. They donned big hats and gear-shaped jewelry that complemented the “steampunk” genre of science fiction, which features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology.

The annual competition started in 1992 to helps students develop a passion for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and consider related careers. Worldwide, 3,350 teams compete including 85,000 students and mentors.

Frank Merrick, director for FIRST Robotics, attended the East Kentwood event from New Hampshire, where FIRST is headquartered.

“The students are directly involved in creating something real that they are going to see on the field in competition,” Merrick said. “They are completely involved in what’s going on in the field. … It’s something they have created with their own hands.

Deadlines, glitches, a tight budget and other problems they have to work through make it a very real-world experience, he added: “They are dealing with all the challenges an adult would deal with in a typical engineering type position.”

Over $50 million in college scholarships are available to students in FIRST Robotics and FIRST Tech Challenge, another program through FIRST.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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