OXFORD – Minutes before his robotics team competes in the first round of FIRST Tech Challenge, Nathan Rodgers inspects their robot, a cubed machine named Geoff designed to pick up debris.
More than 20 teams from all over the state traveled to the University of Mississippi on Saturday to show off their robot designs and control them through an obstacle course that consisted of collecting whiffle balls and placing them in bins for points.
As his teammate, Brandon Hess, switches on Geoff, a sharp pop sounds from the inner workings of wire and intricately-placed aluminum.
This isn’t Rodgers' first robotics competition. He’s been fiddling with robotics design and programming for nearly eight years. Now, as a junior in homeschool, Rodgers remains calm as he cranes his neck to inspect the sound.
“Did something just pop?” he asked. “I heard a pop. It sounded like a fuse. This is something new.”
For the last two weeks, Rodgers and his team worked tireless hours configuring the robot and learning new electronics systems. The first year his team competed, his team went on to compete in Texas at nationals, where they beat an all-veteran team.
Rodgers began competing in FTC three years ago. Since then, he’s learned an array of skills that have made him a more confident person.
“I’ve learned two new coding languages. I’ve developed public speaking skills, and I’ve done a lot of youth outreach,” Rodgers said. “I’d say my leadership skills are always being improved and always needing to be worked on. This program helps with that because you have to prioritize and set goals to make it happen.”
Eventually, he plans on attending Mississippi State University to study software engineering or mechanical engineering.
“I enjoy programming,” he said. “I’m not very creative when it comes to mechanical design. I can critique and give feedback to the design team, but I just really enjoy programming that thing to move and maximizing its efficiency.”
One in 20
For many others competitors like Rodgers at the robotics competition, participating in the design and programming of a robot have made them think about their future in technology.
John O’Haver, director for the Center for Mathematics and Science Education, hosted the competition with FIRST Tech Challenge.
He said the robotics competition allows students to first experience STEM-related activities.
“It’s their first exposure to real creativity and in science, technology, engineering and math,” O’Haver said. “A lot of them have no clue that they can. To take a robot kit and piece everything together, program it, make it solve problems, compete against others and win, it’s just an exciting thing for a lot of them.”
O’Haver’s favorite experience while he’s hosted the FIRST Tech Challenge for four years was seeing a rookie team win.
“They were crying and jumping up and down,” he said. “It’s amazing. Watching kids who came from schools where everybody told them all their life that they can’t do anything, they do. And they get to travel the world and compete.”
Jeffrey Vitter, chancellor of UM, congratulated all the teams for diving into the field of technology. He called the FIRST Tech Challenge “a sport of the mind.”
“You’re here to win robotics, and that means a lot to me,” he said. “I’m a computer scientist, and this is my field. Nothing is more important to the future of our state and economy than innovation and technology.”
The number of STEM occupations are growing around 17 percent annually, more than any other field, and one in 20 jobs are going to be STEM related in just two years, Vitter said.
The last 20 seconds
Robyn Winstead, principal of East Rankin Academy, held many roles on Saturday: robotics team coach and mother to Ward Winstead, robotics competitor.
Winstead watched her son’s robotics team start from nothing and create a working machine that can climb slopes and hang from bars.
“This robot has been a work in progress,” she said. “It’s very different than the first robot we started with like five months ago. We learned through mistakes and trial and error.”
She brought in a programming mentor from the University of Texas that gave the robotics team a coding bootcamp. So far, Winstead has seen how dealing with robotics enhances a young person’s creativity and intelligence.
“It gives them real life issues to deal with in science,” Robyn said. “They have to use some physics to use some things they are trying to solve. I like that from an academic perspective. As a principal, I like seeing the concepts that are taught in the classroom.”
Ward Winstead, junior at East Rankin Academy, started working with LEGOS as a small child. After he heard about the robotics team at his high school, he delved further into his fascination with engineering.
Winstead has competed in other robotics competitions, like BEST Robotics Competition, but he enjoys the FIRST competition because of its value of working with other teams.
“You could really feel the competition at BEST,” Winstead said. “But with FIRST, since you have to be in an alliance with a team, you have to rely on each other. Teams are just so much nicer to each other than what we’re used to.”
Ward controlled his robot during the obstacle course with only two minutes and 30 seconds to collect debris – worth a certain number of points – or guide your robot up a slope to hang from a bar, worth 80 points.
With 20 seconds before the round ended, Ward’s robot inched up the hill, followed by cheers in the audience. They knew he was about to attempt the bar hang.
The crane grazed the top of the bar while the audience held a collective breath, but the time buzzer rang. A quick sign of frustration covered Ward’s face. He almost made it.
“I was a little nervous. Some things didn’t do what they were supposed to,” Ward said. “The first round is always hard trying to get everything situated. I’m just going to learn from it.”