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Indiana State Robotics Competition Builds Passion for STEM

The state competition organized by FIRST Indiana Robotics drew 32 teams and hundreds of students, teachers and advisers to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology to showcase their work building and programming robots.

robotics tournament
(TNS) — Throngs of people clapped and cheered from the stands at Hulbert Arena, with many wearing team colors — or even dying their hair — to show support for Tiger Dynasty of Fishers, Disco Ducks of Princeton, Westside Boiler Invasion of West Lafayette and other competitors.

But it was not a sporting event they attended Friday at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. The boisterous fans and participants were part of the FIRST Robotics Indiana State Championships, with 32 teams from throughout the state.

Organizers anticipated the event would bring 3,000 or more spectators to Rose-Hulman and Terre Haute; that's in addition to about 650 high school students, teachers, mentors/advisors and contest judges.

The championship event, which featured high school and family/community robotics teams, looked like robots in a competitive basketball game as they tossed big tennis-like balls into funnel-like "goals" located in the center. Later, robots "climbed" rungs of what looked like monkey bars.

Part of it was pre-programmed and part of it involved team members manually controlling the robots.

The event included announcers and even referees.

(The actual game, called Rapid React and presented by Boeing Co., involved competing teams processing cargo (balls) for transportation; to score, the robots had to toss the cargo into lower and upper hubs, and they also scored extra points by climbing rungs of a hangar).

During breaks in the action, people danced and clapped to music, while some of the team members walked around in tutus, safari hats, capes or camouflage and helmets.

"It's like a party. It really makes STEM fun," said Carlotta Berry, Rose-Hulman robotics educator and veteran FIRST Robotics judge. "It takes it from that nerdy, boring ... this is such a snore kind of thing, and turns it into something exciting that people want to do. That's really the selling point of it."

It wasn't just teams and family who attended. Many from the Terre Haute community also came to watch. "It tells a little bit about what's right at the back door — what Rose-Hulman has to offer and what kind of things we can do with our kids to get them excited about STEM and robotics," Berry said.

Students who participate in FIRST Robotics learn much more than robotics and technical skills, she said. They also learn about "gracious professionalism, cooperation and core values of being on a team — not just the ability to build the best robot, but the ability to work together, work with other teams and entrepreneurship."

Since Jan. 8, teams of students have worked with teachers and mentors to design, build and program completely from scratch 4-foot-tall and 125-pound robots that competed in district competitions late last month in Columbus, Kokomo and Lafayette. The district and state competitions have been organized by FIRST Indiana Robotics.

Among those watching the excitement Friday was Aaron Ballenger, Rose-Hulman assistant director of admissions. "This is incredible. I've never seen a robot competition before," he said. "It's like a rock concert."

He was previously an assistant women's basketball coach at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and had been in Hulbert Arena for the team's games against Rose-Hulman. "This is the best atmosphere I've ever seen in this building," Ballenger said.

Among those participating Friday was Ian Wobschall of Westside Boiler Invasion from West Lafayette High School, who operated a robot during competition. "It's a lot of fun and also really tiring," Wobschall said. What he enjoys most is being with the rest of the team.

He wore a yellow cape based on the team theme and mascot, an alien from outer space.

Another team member, Moses Dilts, controlled the drive train and the robot climbing. "It's really loud and crazy. It's a lot of fun," he said of the competition. It's also intense.

Nearby, Austin Martz of Fishers High School and the Tiger Dynasty team, wore an orange Tigger the Tiger outfit in support of the team. Being at the FIRST Robotics state championship "is an experience. It's my first year here," he said. He described the event as "very inclusive" and welcoming to all who participate.

Upstairs in the arena, parent Dawn Braswell watched competition. She is also a safety mentor for the Castle High School robotics team from Newburgh, which named its robot Hank the Hippo. "We have the safari hats on — like we're going on safari," she said.

Her son, EJ, is lead programmer. He enjoyed computers, but participating in FIRST Robotics "transformed him socially and also it's improved his computer skills tremendously," she said. What's he's learning will translate into future opportunities in college and the workforce.

While she described qualifying rounds as low key, which seemed anything but on Friday, during final rounds, "You can't even hear yourself," Braswell said.

Qualifying matches took place Friday and Saturday, with playoff matches and an awards ceremony also Saturday.

Seven teams from the Indiana competition will qualify for the FIRST Robotics World Championship in Houston, Texas on April 20-23.

©2022 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.