Vicky Li bent over her team’s robot and tightened the wheels one last time before placing the bot in the arena for the 20th battle at the FIRST Tech Challenge Virginia State Championship.
With two wins and one loss under the Pokebots belt, Virginia Episcopal School team captain Li wasn’t about to risk having the wheels fall off again.
More than 50 robots battled it out at the For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology (FIRST) Tech Challenge Virginia State Championship hosted by the VES Saturday afternoon. The crowd of more than 500 people covered the stands and the floors; the only easy maneuverable areas were the battle arenas.
Li, 18, an international student from Beijing, China, and the rest of the team, which included Nate Baugher, Perry Deng, Benjamin Khoury, Tim Li, William Liang, Leo Liu, Max Wieboldt and Jimmy Zhang, were focused on getting as many points as possible during the battle by having their robot throw balls of various sizes into a basket, both autonomously and controlled.
Marcia Yochum, Pokebot mentor and dean of students at VES, said that preparing for the competition was a lot of work, but it’s worth it.
“FIRST Tech Challenge is a great opportunity for students – middle school and high school students – to build a robot and compete,” she said. “Not only do they compete with other teams, but they ally with other teams, so that they actually learn to collaborate, communicate and work on their people skills.”
Yochum said each team member learns about programming, mechanical engineering, marketing and more.
“Robotics is a great experience because it really teaches the life skills of persistence and resilience,” she said. “You know, it’s a great way to learn because there’s no right or wrong answer; it’s a team of people collaborating to try and solve a problem to the best of their ability.”
Li said she initially got into robotics because she had some free time, but now she thinks robotics and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) are “pretty cool.”
“I think that’s the near future,” she said, gesturing to the crowd and referencing how many people attended the event. “… I started thinking about how real life applies to physics and how I can get inspired by real life, and put that into my invention in robotics.”
Maureen Carley, the FTC program director for FIRST Chesapeake, said there are two ways teams could advance through the competition: judged awards and competition awards.
The competition awards are based on how well the team’s robot performs the challenge, Carley said, the judged awards are based on the team’s engineering notebook, which details how each team tested, designed and built their robot, the team’s strategy, how the team raised money and how the team interacted with the community.
Carley said robotics is important because it’s “the hook” that gets kids interested in STEM. She said it’s important that more kids get involved in STEM and robotics because professional disciplines based in those fields are struggling to find employees.
“The supply isn’t keeping up with the demand,” she said.
But robotics and STEM isn’t the only reason kids should get involved with FTC, Carley said.
“They’re learning strategy, they’re learning communications, they’re learning outreach, they’re learning valuable business skills, they’re obviously learning valuable technology skills, but they’re learning it all while they’re building robots and playing in competitive events,” she said. “While some of them get that they’re learning that, some of them are just having fun and playing with robots, but they’re still learning it.”