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Teens learn science and teamwork at KC robotics competition

Their robots were temperamental. Unpredictable.

Figuring out just what teenagers from all around Missouri and beyond were doing Sunday to try to tame their hotwired machines meant a lot of talking while walking.

The rounds of competition at the FIRST Tech Challenge at the University of Missouri-Kansas City came at the robotics teams relentlessly, and problems and more problems were demanding solutions. Little time to chat.

The Red Hot Techie Peppers’ trouble at the moment?

Carpeting.

Or rather, the static electricity generated in their robot as it moved across the thin carpet of UMKC’s Swinney Recreation Center.

“It froze all of our wiring,” said 16-year-old David O’Kelley of Raytown. “We’re not the only ones who have suffered it today.”

Here’s what’s supposed to happen in situations like this:

Teenagers, who spent weeks and even months planning for the event, work together, even with opposing teams, to make these things

work

.

They get not only the thrill of accomplishment, but the satisfaction of creative teamwork.

They gain confidence. They see themselves as engineering problem-solvers. They pursue a college education in science, technology, engineering and/or math — the so-called STEM careers.

Or, as chief judge Craig Klimczak exhorted the crowd of competitors at the opening of the event, he sees them all breaking out into the working world “with your minds, hearts, souls and spirits” in pursuit of a life mission “to create something of value to make this world a better place.”

Here was a Super Bowl, he said, that “celebrates the accomplishments of the mind.”

This was Kansas City’s inaugural FIRST Tech Challenge. It is a robotic challenge that is staking a middle ground between the FIRST Lego League competition at the middle-school level and the FIRST Robotics Challenge that has been holding regional championships at Kansas City’s Hale Arena for almost a decade.

FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — was founded in New Hampshire in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen and has become an internationally popular competition.

But the cost demands and intense time constraints in the larger robotic competition made it tough for many schools and clubs to enter, especially if they lacked a strong mentoring relationship with engineering professionals.

The FIRST Tech Challenge, with its 18-inch-tall robots and smaller playing fields, is growing in popularity as an alternative or a stepping stone to the full robotic competition.

Clubs can get in for $5,000 or so, rather than $10,000 or more, said Kevin Truman, dean of UMKC’s School of Computing and Engineering, and a leader in the KC STEM Alliance.

“These are small enough you can take them home; you can take them into the garage,” he said.

It’s just as hard, though, to get them working right.

This year’s competition required teams to come up with ways to pick up doughnut-shaped color disks and hang them on posts on three-tiered racks at the center of the playing field.

The robots stuttered and stopped, jerked and went. Their accordion arms waggled as they extended to hang disks. They bumped into one another and sometimes blinked out.

But they were out there under the teenagers’ control, and in wonderful moments they triumphed.

“It’s amazing to see them out there, having done the engineering ourselves,” said 19-year-old Sang Ly, a senior at Kansas City’s Northeast High School.

Their claw for grabbing disks wasn’t working quite the way they needed it to, “but we’re making adjustments,” he said. “We will do better.”

It’s the way the teams solve their problems that is most gratifying, Klimczak said.

The Red Hot Techie Peppers, a team from Kansas City’s LEARN Science and Math Club, attached a grounding wire to its robot to end that static electricity problem — a solution O’Kelley said was relayed to him from another team with the same problem.

The same cooperation showed in another situation, Klimczak said. This is the first time for this kind of competition in Kansas City, and one team showed up with only the basic parts that all the teams had received, thinking this was a day for building their machine.

Over a rapid couple of hours, Klimczak said, builders from several teams joined in and helped the rookies assemble a working robot in time for the competition so they didn’t have to just watch from the sidelines.

“That showed one of the core values of FIRST competition,” he said. “Gracious professionalism.”

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