Bradley University hosted more than 2,000 students from the region in a unique version of “March Madness,” with the idea of making science as fun and as competitive as traditional sporting events.
(TNS) — An NCAA-like atmosphere lingered over the Bradley University campus this weekend, but it wasn't basketball that brought the crowd at Renaissance Coliseum to its feet.
Some 2,200 people were on hand to cheer on their favorite contestants in a regional tournament that brought high-school teams from as far away as Turkey and Canada along with local favorites like Argos and Robot Casserole to put their robotic creations to the test.
The 40-team regional has become an annual event at BU's Renaissance site, complete with music, cheerleaders, referees and concessions. "It's loud down there on the floor," said Tim Koch, a Caterpillar Inc. employee who's been involved with the FIRST Robotics program since 2007.
"This is the real March Madness. It's a competition that makes being involved with science as exciting as basketball or football," he said, crediting the 140 volunteers for making the event so memorable.
"The difference here is that all the members of these teams can go pro, unlike sports where only a very small percentage are able to. The kids here are learning more than putting together a robot. They're creating and designing something from scratch. They learn to work with one another," said Koch, who, as Caterpillar's STEM Program Manager, sees the benefits for both kids and companies.
Caterpillar, a key sponsor of a competition that interests high school students in technical careers, sees FIRST Robotics competitors as part of the next generation of engineers, scientists and innovators, he said.
Having such a high-profile event at Bradley is good for the university, too, said Koch. "They come here through high school and get exposed to the excitement this competition provides. That's great exposure for the school," he said.
Stephen Koch, proudly displaying the Argos emblem on his jacket, is another FIRST Robotics veteran, having competed since 2008, when he was a Tremont High School student. Now a Caterpillar employee like his father, the younger Koch attests to the benefits that come out of the robotics competition.
"There's a great atmosphere here. People who experience it for the first time are amazed," he said.
Three teams out of the 40 that competed on Saturday will go on to compete in the world championships to be held in Detroit in late April. Team Argos, made up of Limestone Community High School students, took first and will make their second straight trip to Detroit. With them go the Roboteers from Tremont High School and the Electric Eagles from Lindblom Math and Science Academy from Chicago.
"The regional is great," said Nate Grobe, 16, a junior at Limestone. "I love the attitude of the people here. Everyone is pretty chill.
"I love the local teams, kids from Dunlap, Washington and Tremont. We compete against them, but we're all in this together," he said.
Another Limestone/Argos teammate agreed. "The competition is always teaching you things," said Noah Schultz, 18, a Limestone senior who's looking forward to another trip to Detroit but acknowledged there was plenty of work ahead before the finals.
"We'll make a trip with other members to view a FIRST Robotics Competition in central Missouri. There's also time scheduled at the Caterpillar facility, where a practice court has been set up," he said.
Ron Langstaff of Aurora was in the Renaissance crowd on Saturday and pointed out that the regional represented more than just winning. "My son's not here, but I am. Our Aurora team finished 38th out of 40, but while I know they're disappointed not finishing higher, they learned teamwork, the art of compromise and project management. I don't know if students get that from any other activity," he said.
"But of the 38 students on our team, 22 are new. They're engaged and they're learning," said Langstaff.
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