The gym at UC Davis' Activities and Recreation Center (ARC) was filled with hundreds of high school students and their robots this weekend. It was the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition Sacramento Regional.
The 65 teams competing came from California, Nevada, Hawaii and even one from Brazil. They were tasked with having their robot grab a covered milk crate and push it through a floor-high hole, drop it over a short wall, or put it on a huge teeter-totter platform by raising it up or shooting it on to the platform.
Three teams are chosen randomly during the preliminary rounds to make up an alliance. A red and a blue alliance face off to score points. The teams carry their scores to the next round when they are again randomly put together to form an alliance.
Creed Watts, a physics teacher at Pioneer High in Woodland, mentors the Digital Minds team that is made up of Pioneer and Woodland High students. Watts says the students who belong to robotic teams gain skills that can help them get into college and find a job, and not just in a tech field. “It teaches engineering skills, mechanics, electrical engineering, pneumatics work, it teaches teamwork, building and working in a team, and more than anything it teaches building to a deadline and working under pressure and having to get things done in a very limited amount of time," he said.
The teams were told and shown what tasks the robots would have to do last month, giving them only six weeks to get their bots ready for Davis. Marcos Hadley is a Pioneer student and member of Digital Minds. “We barely have enough time to actually build the robot sometimes, and even then, when we get to the competition we're still working on it," he said.
Hadley says many long hours are spent after school putting together the robot, programming it, fixing the glitches and testing it out.
While the teams are still largely male, the number of young women joining is growing. And then there is the Fembots — the all-female team from St. Francis High in Sacramento. Co-captain Elizabeth Chiu says they hope they're setting a good example for young girls. “The other day there was a group of girls on a field trip that had come to the competition and they even asked to take a picture with us, and they really were inspired that we were an all-girls team,” she said. “It was a really cool experience.”
Chiu says her message to young girls is get involved, watch videos, and go to a competition. The high school junior says she got interested through her cousin who was on a team, and got hooked when she went to the Davis event as a freshman. Chiu says her dream job is to become an engineer for Disney.
The Fembots weren’t one of the 24 teams to make the playoffs at Davis, but Chiu says they are improving. “Last year kind of felt like we were praying on duct tape and hope to get us through the competition, but this year we've been really proud to keep the duct tape to a minimum and we did reach a lot of our goals,” Chiu said. “We were ranked 25th at one point, which is a really cool achievement for us."
The eight top-scoring teams in the preliminary rounds hold a draft and each chooses two other teams to join them in the playoffs. The team from Brazil was one of the top eight. This year's top-scoring team in the preliminary rounds was Citrus Circuits from Davis High, a national power and defending champ at the Davis event. They went on to defend their title, taking this year's crown with alliance members Madera High and Duncan Polytechnical High of Fresno. The three now qualify for the national championships later this spring.