Open House Showcases Benefits and Challenges of School Robotics Programs
 
It’s been called the “ultimate sport for the mind,” with activities and competitions based on the construction of robots for students as young as six years old to those in high school. For Inspiration and Recognition of Science & Technology is the sponsoring organization. Known by the acronym FIRST, the nonprofit sponsors competitions that increasing numbers of students in the Union Community School District are choosing to participate, thanks to a group of committed adult volunteers and supporting area businesses.
The origin of the robotics program at Union dates back to 2010 when students at Union Middle School built their first robot. By 2013, the program had expanded to the high school, and it wasn’t long before teams from Union High School, Robota Red and Robota White, were enjoying success at the state and regional level.
Last week, a robotics open house of sorts was held at the high school, as leaders continue to explore a variety of issues related to the program’s growth. Unlike varsity athletics and established fine arts programs, Union’s robotics program is not directly funded by the school district. With the district experiencing a decline in enrollment, organizers of the robotics program acknowledge the financial challenges associated with adding a new extracurricular activity to those already in place. And while the district has no formal budget for the robotics program, organizers are quick to express their appreciation for the support that has come from the district in other ways, including the designation of space on-site at the high school and use of vehicles to transport students to competition events.
The meeting also included representatives from Dike-New Hartford and Cedar Falls, who shared their experiences establishing robotics programs in their respective communities. Students from Cedar Falls High School conducted a live demonstration, using the robot their team has constructed to pick up a foam ball in the field of play and launch it several feet in the air successfully through a target. They also answered questions and explained the reasoning behind some of the modifications they have made to their robot.
What began more than 25 years ago as 28 teams in the United States participating in a robotics competition, has now grown to more than 44,000 teams participating in 80 countries, as more than 400,000 students and volunteers are involved in FIRST sponsored competitions around the globe. With objectives that include building, collaborating and solving problems, while learning to value and respect teammates and fellow competitors, it’s easy to see the far-reaching benefits the program offers participants.
 
It’s way more than building robots. FIRST Tech Challenge teams are challenged to design, build, program, and operate robots to compete in a head-to-head challenge in an alliance format. Participants call it “the hardest fun you’ll ever have!” Guided by adult Coaches and Mentors, students develop STEM skills and practice engineering principles while realizing the value of hard work, innovation, and sharing ideas.                
 
www.firstinspires.org