Middle and high school students from across Mississippi recently gathered at the Tad Pad on the University of Mississippi campus to compete in the fifth annual FIRST Tech Challenge robotics competition. A total of 24 teams traveled to Oxford for the Saturday, March 4, event hosted by UM’s Center for Mathematics and Science Education.
The For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, nonprofit organization was founded 25 years ago by inventor Dean Kaman to build interest in STEM fields, according to a UM news release.
All robots in the competition are built by high school students. UM students studying engineering attend the event to see young engineering talent who may be future UM engineers.
Out of the 24 teams that competed, the Techno Warriors, Wait For It, Challenge Accepted, and Blue Crew advanced to the finals in Athens, Georgia. Approximately 5,000 teams participate worldwide, according to the UM news release that said the program has grown in Mississippi. Only four teams participated five years ago.
Sophomore Thomas Breakrell, from Roanoke, Virginia, is studying engineering at the University of Mississippi.
“I love that the engineering students come together for this event, because it’s important that we encourage the teens to keep working hard,” Breakrell said. “The involvement of the college engineer students makes it seem ‘cool,’ and it’s extremely encouraging for the younger generations.”
Breakrell said it allows early exploration of engineering and gives participants the experience of working in a team setting.
“The fun part of the competition pushes them to think bigger and greater, but at the same time, everyone is having a blast because who doesn’t love a little competition,” he said. “The fact that these young teens are able to build these machines at their age is incredible.”
The event gives younger adults the opportunity to brainstorm and create things from scratch. They are forced out of their comfort zone, trying to improve their skills as a young engineer.
Sophomore Brooke Bowen from Houston, Texas attended the event for the first time. “Walking into the event, I was blown away even before I started watching the competition,” she said. “I was in awe that young kids, younger than me, are able to create these robots that move and pick up things on their own. I can say, to be honest, I wouldn’t know where to start.”
Bowen said it’s refreshing that UM supports young aspiring engineers and holds fun, competitive events for them.
“It’s a perfect opportunity for them to experiment with their ideas and meet other kids from different places with the same passion,” she said. “The event was so friendly. The competitors were all mingling and admiring each others work.”
The all-day competition involves 2.5 minute battles. Contestants take turns switching out rotations to battle each other. One objective was to move objects on the field they were given.
The robots could perform a variety of functions, but some were able to pick up a large yoga ball and toss it into a hoop like hole. Students controlled their robots on Xbox or PS4 controllers they programmed themselves.
Each team had their own booth around the arena where they worked freely on their robot and showed it to everyone attending the event, including their competition. Booths were decorated according to the teams’ names. Each team picked their own name. Students also coordinated costumes.
Eighth-grader Noah Boles attended the event with his teammates. “This is an event that the young interested engineer students look forward to every year,” Boles said. “It’s awesome that we are given the opportunity to hang out with the college students who are majoring in engineering, because I feel like we already have something in common with them. They give us great advice, and it makes me even more excited to further my engineering career after talking with the college students.”
Boles said he loves competing with kids his age. “It’s cool to see the robots that everyone came up with and the hard work that was put into every one of the machines,” he said. “We also got to meet new people that we never would have met if it wasn’t for this event.
“Everyone we competed against was so nice and supportive. After every round, the other players would come and shake our hands. It was a great event with awesome vibes all around.”
UM hosts the event every year so young engineers can explore their passion freely with other hardworking students.