March Madness goes hi-tech

University of Minnesota hosts regional robotics competition for area students

By Rick Moore

March 28, 2008

The event has been touted as a new kind of "March Madness," playing on the frenzy that develops this time of year around basketball and other winter sports tournaments. And just when you thought that might be overstating it a bit, you came upon the sign Friday outside Williams Arena:

"Boys State Basketball Championships," with an arrow pointing toward Mariucci Arena. "Regional Robotics Competition," with an arrow pointing straight ahead.

The robotics competition landed in the big arena. Score one for science.

On March 28 and 29, Williams Arena is hosting the first-ever Minnesota Regional FIRST Robotics Competition from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition attracted more than 50 teams of students from the six-state region.

Their challenge was to build a competition-worthy robot in just six weeks. There were rules to follow--including size and weight restrictions--and each team was given motors, a battery, a computer controller, and other core components. Beyond that, it was up to the ingenuity of the teams, with a little help from their mentors.

The two-day competition is giving them a chance to show off their creations in a competitive and collaborative event, complete with screaming fans, supportive parents, and a tournament atmosphere.

That focus on teamwork is a big part of the FIRST concept; the Chairman's Award--the highest honor--is given to the team judged to have created the best partnership effort among team members and best exemplified the values of FIRST.

The goal of FIRST is to create a challenging, hands-on environment that helps students grow into future engineers, scientists, inventors, and business people, according to Mark Lawrence, chair of the Minnesota FIRST regional planning committee.

"The whole idea of this program is to keep them interested in science, technology, and mathematics," he says. "And they get to work with industry people. Most of the mentors are engineers."

The University of Minnesota played a large supportive role for the event, sponsoring four of the teams, and the University of Minnesota, Duluth also provided some funding for the Duluth team, even though its primary sponsor was NASA.

In addition, the Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power on the Twin Cities campus provided mentoring support for the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School team.

While Williams Arena was abuzz with the excitement of competition, the adjacent Sports Pavilion functioned as the pit area, where all the teams were busy tweaking their creations.

Lawrence was as excited as some of the students as he pointed out the diversity of the robots and the types of components that students chose. "Look at the size of that cylinder; holy cow!" he said of one.

Seventh-grader Joanna Abell is a member of the Fond du Lac team, and while she hasn't always been fond of science, she thinks the event is "pretty cool ... I've always had dreams of making a little robot guy, and now I did."

The competition itself is action packed, with six teams competing at a time--three apiece for two different "alliances." The teams race their robots around a 54-foot-by-27-foot carpeted oval track, picking up points for completing laps, knocking a large ball off an overpass, lifting the balls up and launching them over the overpass, and gently setting the balls back on top near the end of the race.

Referees monitor the races and assess penalty points for a variety of infractions. At the end of each round, each team in the winning alliance scores two points, which fosters the sense of collaboration.

That focus on teamwork is a big part of the FIRST concept; the Chairman's Award--the highest honor--is given to the team judged to have created the best partnership effort among team members and best exemplified the values of FIRST.

Just two years ago, there were only two FIRST Robotics teams in Minnesota. Due to sponsorships from the University of Minnesota and corporations such as Medtronic, Boston Scientific, 3M, St. Jude Medical, Lockheed Martin, General Mills, Cargill, Best Buy, BAE Systems, and others, the number of robotics teams in Minnesota has more than tripled from 16 last year to 54 this year. Worldwide, there are more than 1,500 FIRST Robotics teams.

The action continues through Saturday at Williams Arena, 1925 University Ave. S.E. in Minneapolis. The championship matches take place from 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday. The event is free and open to the public.

Winning teams from the regional event will advance to the national championship April 17-19 in Atlanta.

For more information, visit FIRST.