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Kokomo RoboKats from left are August Shriver, Heaven Stipek, and Chelsy Sanders. Here, they drive their robot in the IU Kokomo FIRST Tech Challenge Qualifying Tournament on Saturday, January 11, 2020.

On a a 12-by-12 field, four teams readied their robots to compete in a qualifying match. The two-and-a-half minute match objective was for the robots to maneuver around obstacles, pick up blocks and place them on a pad.

All of this was done with robots the teams, comprised of students in grades 7 through 12, have made by themselves.

This day-long event was a FIRST Tech Challenge(FTC) competition held on Saturday in Havens Auditorium on Indiana University-Kokomo (IUK) campus. The competition was a qualifying meet for FTC’s semi-state tournament, with 22 teams competing in qualifying rounds, semi-finals and finals throughout the day. The top five teams advanced to semi-state.

The competition, which was sponsored by IUK, APTI and local business AndyMark, was part of this year’s Star Wars-themed FTC game, “Star Wars: Together We Rise.”

The Kokomo-based RoboKats competed in the event; the team consisted of Kokomo High School freshman Chelsy Sanders and Heaven Stipek and Bon Air Middle School eighth-grader August Shriver. The three teens sat in their pit room after their qualifying round and talked about things they’ll do differently next time.

“This is like our first home game,” Stipek said. The girls have been working on their robot since September, when FTC sent out the “Star Wars: Together We Rise” game information.

In the qualifying rounds, two teams are randomly chosen to go into an alliance against another set of teams. Even though the RoboKats lost their round, Shriver said watching other teams compete was enlightening.

“Our biggest goal is communication,” she said. “Our biggest challenge, in my view, is not the robot, but how we communicate as a team. For our next competition and for next year, I want to spend more time talking about how we work as a team, and talk to other teams about how they communicate.”

Sanders, who has been a member of RoboKats for three years, said the most difficult thing when building the robot was the claw. The claw was used to pick up blocks and carry them across the field.

“The claw kept breaking,” she said. “Every time we’d get it to work, it would break again. We had to rebuild it several times. It was really frustrating.”

The girls joined the robotics team after local robotics team, TechnoKats, came to their Girl Scouts meeting. Stipek encouraged anyone who is interested in robotics to get involved.

“You won’t regret it,” she said. “It’s worth all of the hard work. It changes your life, and changes everything you think you know.”

Andy Baker, owner of AndyMark, was on the field, wearing a dark blue Star Wars blazer. Baker has been involved in robotics for years, and knew nearly everyone behind the scenes. AndyMark supplies pieces used for the competition, which look like big, proprietary building blocks, around the world.

Baker said that while the teams compete, they’ll complete various tasks to earn points. For the first 30 seconds of the competition, the robot moves autonomously using code that has been pre-programmed. After that, the robots are controlled by two drivers and a coach, with a human player, who drops a brick into the field. While players can bump into their competition, they usually don’t.

“This isn’t so much like Battle Bots,” he said. “This is a lot more productive than destructive. There’s a lot of excitement with these kids. They’re all here and excited about STEM, excited about robotics. It’s a long day for these kids and you watch them from being really shy to getting to talking about their projects. You can tell they’re really passionate about it.”

Patrick Motl, IUK’s associate dean of School of Sciences and associate professor of physics, was also on the field. He said watching the students’ compete with such fervor is inspiring.

“It’s really exciting to see all of the different engineering, the different designs,” he said. “It takes a lot of ingenuity. These are clearly highly engaged, highly motivated kids.”

FIRST Indiana Senior Mentor Keith Hall said that there’s a lot more to FTC than building a robot.

“What we’re trying to teach is how to think, how to solve problems, not how to find an answer book,” he said. “Just because things should work on paper, sometimes things don’t go how they’re supposed to go.”

A major component of FTC is gracious professionalism, he said. Chest-thumping and excessive celebration are prohibited.

“We give awards for teams who exhibit gracious professionalism,” Hall said. “It’s common if you’re in the finals and something breaks in your robot and you don’t have a spare part. Even if you’re competing against them, if you have that spare part, you lend it to them. We all wait for them to fix it and then everybody competes, even if they beat you by doing that.”

Off the field, teams are required to undergo interviews with judges about their robots. Outside of competition, teams will take on community service projects to meet with the public and teach them about robotics, he said.

Teaching the students to be life-long learners and how to engage in “coopertition,” a combination of cooperation and competition, is a main objective, Hall said.

“A good example is Samsung and Apple, they beat each other up in the market place but Apple couldn’t make their phones without Samsung, because Samsung is one of Apple’s main chip providers,” he said. “When we compete, compete like crazy, but off the field, we cooperate with each other.”

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