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Thursday, Aug 17, 2017
Education

UT robotics contest draws 1,000 aspiring engineers

TAMPA — The “Edgar Allen Ohms” robotics team wasn’t winning many matches during the annual Roboticon event Sunday at The University of Tampa, but team member Matthew Pease was all smiles anyway.

During a break in the team’s “Aerial Assist” schedule — imagine robots playing volleyball with a yoga ball — Matthew, a 16-year-old home schooled student, said he joined the team at Pasco County’s Land O’ Lakes Branch Library last year.

Matthew had a long interest in robotics but a school-based team seemed intimidating.

“When I was at the library I heard an announcement about the robotics team,” he said. He joined soon after. “I liked how well our first robot came together and how the team worked together.”

Matthew was one of about 1,000 students from around the state who participated in the weekend event, presented by FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The organization was founded by Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway scooter and a drug-infusion pump, among other things.

Nearly 20 teams of high school-age students participated in the weekend robotics competition, while younger children participated in elaborate LEGO challenges.

“Oh, man, I’ve met people from Lakeland, Miami, Jacksonville — all over the place,” Matthew said. “I’ve learned major, valuable engineering skills, but it’s also a lot about teamwork and programming skills.”

Terri Willingham, regional director for FIRST in Central Florida, said she enjoys seeing teams work with one another then, while competing, \help each other troubleshoot technical problems, offer moral support and build friendships.

On Saturday, teams mostly participated in workshops on robot programming and design, engaged in networking and practiced “Aerial Assist” matches, Willingham said.

The event, she said, is “geared toward kids interested in science, engineering and math — or just how the world works.”

As Willingham spoke, the crowd inside the Bob Martinez Athletics Center cheered loudly when a team scored.

“You have to love the energy,” Willingham said. “We want to empower kids to try new things and not worry about failing. You will experience failures, but you’ll learn things you never knew before. You learn that it’s OK to make mistakes. You build character.”

During a break in competition Sunday, Donald Vilardebo, 18, of Kissimmee, was in the “pits,” a behind-the-scenes area where teams tinkered with their robots.

Vilardebo was eyeballing a chain on “Moose,” one of his team’s two robots. The other is called “Squirrel.”

“I always wanted to do something with robots, but my parents aren’t really scientists,” Vilardebo said, pausing to check a wheel.

Around him, other competitors wielded hammers, checked remote control connections and discussed their robots, all of which were built in six weeks or less and most of which weighed 120 to 150 pounds.

The “Edgar Allen Ohms” won only one of several matches Sunday, but it was more important for first-year participants to gain experience in a competitive setting, said Paul Stonebridge, teen services manager with the Pasco library system, who leads the team.

The Land O’ Lakes team is supported by Pasco County, a NASA grant and corporate sponsors, Stonebridge said. The team, with 19 members and two adult mentors, meets at the library as well as a member’s garage. The robots cost several thousand dollars to build.

The Land O’ Lakes team did win an essay contest over the weekend, garnering $200 in robot-related swag from Boca Bearing, a Roboticon sponsor.

Willingham considered the event a success.

“You see all of them in there, they’re working together, they’re polite and well-mannered, and you think, ‘Oh, the world’s going to be OK, after all,’ ” she said.

gfox@tampatrib.com

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