MURRAY – In an event Saturday that has come to be known as “the Olympics of the mind” Murray State University hosted more than 300 participants and spectators for the Kentucky State Championship for FIRST Tech Challenge Robotics.
FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” is a non-profit organization founded by inventor Dean Kamen which focuses on “coopertition” – that is, cooperation and competition – to develop students’ problem-solving, troubleshooting and relationship-building abilities by designing, programming and constructing robots tasked with an annually unique set of challenges.
Calloway County High School engineering teacher Jeff Slaton served as this year’s event coordinator, who was the first to be held at MSU and featured 16 contestants from Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee.
. “All Kentucky teams are guaranteed an opportunity to compete here, but we also invited teams from other states to fill out (tournament brackets),” he said. “This helps to achieve the goal of allowing teams with less experience to learn and grow by observing the more experienced teams. It’s important that the students see that. ”
In order to prepare for the competition, circuit teams receive kit materials along with specifications the prior September. Each match is divided into three periods consisting of an autonomous phase, a TeleOp (or driver-controlled) portion and the “end game.”
During the autonomous phase, the students’ programming prowess is tested as their robots must navigate a predetermined obstacle course while also performing certain tasks. What follows is perhaps more impressive and potentially lost on the casual observer. As Slaton explains it becomes clear why the event is called the Olympics of the mind.
“It’s hard to get people to realize the complexity of what they see because some of the more sophisticated teams often use a lot of technology that people aren’t even aware of, that they can’t see on (the models) because it’s written into the programming or it’s in the sensory controls, ”he said.
Piloting what might appear to be bizarre remote-controlled cars with odd armatures or large rotating gears, each model uses a unique approach to accomplish the tasks laid out for them. Slaton noted, “The games are really complex with layers to them. They’re designed so that people have to plan a strategy of how to play. Most of the games are offensive in nature but there are also defensive maneuvers. ”
Slaton’s hope is that having MSU host the event, along with staffing it largely with volunteers from MSU School of Engineering, the local community of educational leaders will be encouraged to get involved in a mentorship capacity. “The teams are expensive to run – they fund their own materials – and it’s hard because you have to find people who are willing to invest the time and energy and also have an understanding of the technology.”
But Slaton’s infectious enthusiasm and experience makes it clear he believes this to be a worthy investment both in the participants’ and the community’s future. “Almost all of the teams are mentored by multiple people. (FIRST’s) goal is to get professionals on with a team so that kids grow with, get feedback from, a professional. It’s not uncommon for these professionals to watch team members grow and then stay in touch throughout college and after they graduate actually recruit them for a job. I’ve seen it happen multiple times. Local employers have come to me and said, ‘I want some of your people.’ They’re talking about robot students. They want them because they’re true problem solvers. ”