Teen teams duke it out—collaboratively

UND Center for Innovation plays big role at FIRST Robotics Midwest Regional competition in Grand Forks

FIRST

Forty-seven teams—over 2,500 students, teachers, parents, mentors and the public—from five upper Midwest states jammed into the Alerus Center in Grand Forks for three days for the FIRST Robotics Midwest Regional. Image courtesy of the Center for Innovation/Juan Pedraza.

Teens packed the arena tight, in boisterous, gaudily garbed groups.

Rock concert, right?

How about a robotics competition!

Forty-seven teams—more than 2,500 students, teachers, parents, mentors and the public—from five upper Midwest states jammed the Alerus Center in Grand Forks for three days for the FIRST Robotics Midwest Regional.

It was the first Grand Forks hosting of what organizers hope will sprout into many future iterations of the competition. At $65,000, the UND Center for Innovation joined the UND President’s Office as key sponsors of the event. This included $50,000 in private sponsorship funds organized by Phil Gisi, a board member of the Center for Innovation Foundation.

Tyler Sletten and Theresa Garbe

Tyler Sletten (left), an entrepreneur coach at the UND Center for Innovation, and Theresa Garbe, CEO of the Grand Forks-based Sunshine Memorial Foundation and a tenant of the Center, convene in the judges’ center at the FIRST Robotics Midwest Regional at the Alerus Center. Photo courtesy of the Center for Innovation/Juan Pedraza.

No idling

FIRST 2018

Each team spent three days at the Alerus in race-style pits, with robots that they built over six weeks back at home. Image courtesy of the Center for Innovation/Juan Pedraza.

FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” co-founded by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen. He’s best known for the Segway, but is a master inventor of many medical devices as well.

Each team spent three days at Alerus Center—prep one day, competition the next two—with robots that they built over six weeks back at home, in race-style pits crowded with mechanics tool chests, power equipment, laptops and wild clothing, with traffic humming to-and-fro from the pits to competition arena. No idling in this bunch of competitors.

“Robot!” was the watchword, as teams wheeled their elaborate creations to and from the brightly lit competition floor.

The teams—ranging in size from a handful of students to mega-groups with more than ten participants, including a couple of all-girl teams—gathered at the Alerus to show off their robotic chops. Their creations exhibited all the diversity of a multi-ethnic fair—some large, mechanically complex devices with eight wheels, standing as high as eight feet, others niftily compact with just four wheels.

The students did most of the work, with helping hands from mentors, teachers and some outside organizations that provided shop space and welding and other assembly know-how. Every team had at least one programmer, using languages such as Java, C++, and LabMate to create the brains that essentially controlled the robots they created.

“We were excited to be part of this tremendous event,” said Barry Horwitz, interim director of the Center, who spent most of the event cruising the pits, the control center, and the stands, chatting with organizers, judges, mentors, and most importantly, students. “This program is all about encouraging innovation, excellence, and a spirit of collaboration in young people, and to inspire their active interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the so-called STEM fields.”

Barry Horwitz and Ed Shafer

Barry Horwitz, interim director of the UND Center for Innovation, and Ed Shafer, former UND Interim President, former North Dakota Governor and advisor to the center, at the FIRST Robotics Midwest Regional at the Alerus Center. UND and the Center were major sponsors of the event. Image courtesy of the Center for Innovation/Juan Pedraza.

More the merrier

Horwitz said he hoped the co-sponsorship from the UND President’s Office and the Center would be a path-breaking participation for UND in an internationally recognized STEM event. Mike Voglewede, coach of one of the North Dakota teams and a co-organizer of the event, said the UND Center for Innovation sponsorship provided key support.

Teams came from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri. Organizers hope to stage the event in Grand Forks again next year with teams from even more states.

“The more the merrier,” said Greenbush, Minn., teacher Mary Anderson, who with her husband Russ, a feed dealer, was a key co-organizer of the event. “We were thrilled that UND helped to sponsor this event.” Mary coached her Greenbush/Middle River, Minn., “Gator Robotics” team to a first-place win. “This is a super way for students to become actively engaged in a STEM activity and learn all about teamwork.”

First 2018

A big crowd packed the Alerus Center to watch teen teams from across the Midwest duke it out with their mechanical gladiators. Image courtesy of the Center for Innovation/Juan Pedraza.

This highly competitive event was notable because even in the heat of racing to beat the other guy, teams would stop to help each other out of a jam.

“I really appreciate that aspect of the competition,” Horwitz said. “These innovative young people producing these robots are the future of STEM education—and they’re learning in an environment that encourages collaboration,” he added, himself an entrepreneur familiar with high-tech startups.

Other key sponsors of the event included Marvin Windows and Doors, DigiKey, John Deere, Polaris, the Greater Grand Forks Visitor’s Bureau, Andeavor, and Acme Tools.

“We see a growing role for UND and the Center for Innovation in this event,” Horwitz said.

Story by Juan Miguel Pedraza, UND Division of Research & Economic Development