College of Engineering News Room

College of Engineering Sponsors 2017 ROBOTICON Tampa Bay and Brings the Robotics Universe to USF

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Roboticon team builds their Lego robot.

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Making final checks on a robot ready for the grade 9-12 competition.

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The Techno Wizards team tests their robot.

Photos by Ryan Wakefield

By Brad Stager

More than 50 teams with names like Robo Raiders Porygon Programmers, Nerds of Prey and 4H Exploding Bacon, came together October 7 and 8 at the University of South Florida Sun Dome to celebrate all things robotics during the 2017 edition of ROBOTICON Tampa Bay.

ROBOTICON 2017 provided a chance for about 1,500 student technology enthusiasts from all over Florida to enjoy a weekend of robotics competition sanctioned by the educational initiative known as FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science and Technology), which engages students in activities, such as robotics, that teach Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) knowledge and skills.

The action, remotely driving robots to perform tasks within an arena of play, featured teams from four competitive classes: First Lego League Jr. (grades K-4), First Lego League (grades 4-8), FIRST Tech Challenge (grades 7-12) and FIRST Robotics Competition (grades 9-12).

FIRST Tech Challenge Director Ken Johnson says holding the competition at a major research university like USF helps give the young students who are participating an idea of what could be possible for them in the future.

"They learn about the University of South Florida and some of the opportunities that are available to them."

ROBOTICON Tampa Bay moved to USF after growing too large for the space it was using at the University of Tampa. Vickie Chachere, Director of Strategic Communications for USF Research & Innovation, said she helped facilitate moving the event across town. She says attracting motivated STEM students for a weekend can have long-term benefits for them as well as the university.

"This is an event that has value to the community and it's a great way to make that connection with super-talented students who come onto our campus and meet our faculty and see our programs."

ROBOTICON Tampa Bay was organized by Eureka! Factory, a Tampa Bay area company dedicated to developing educational events and learning spaces, and was promoted as "STEAM Powered Sport for the Mind!"

Making sure everything goes smoothly at ROBOTICON was organizer Theresa Willingham, who says one lesson students learn is that tackling tough challenges doesn't have to be hard.

"This kind of event gives kids the opportunity to see that thinking through problems can be a fun experience."

Also collaborating in the event was the Foundation for Community Driven Innovation (FCDI), a not-for-profit organization seeking to connect academic achievement, economic development and an innovative spirit by supporting the growing robotics and recreational technology community in Florida. FCDI Founder Steve Willingham says developing a skilled workforce for high-tech companies, many of which financially and logistically sponsor student teams, is one way ROBOTICON ties it all together.

"This is a talent pipeline for companies. These students are already coding, already designing and already know how to use professional equipment."

Evidence of Steve Willingham's observation could be found down in the team robot pits, where students donned safety glasses and went about the tasks of preparing their machines for the digital fray. Helping guide the students with advice and encouragement were team mentors and volunteers like David Rodriguez, who was coaching the Middleton High School Minotaurs. According to Rodriguez, who is the Technical Director of a Tampa-based technology company, young job applicants who have developed skills and knowledge outside the classroom are noticed by employers.

"We actually hired an intern who was involved in robotics because no matter what kind of problem we threw at him, he could solve it." Rodriguez adds that students learn about team problem solving as well.

FIRST Team 79Krunch member Kayley Brkljacic is a high school sophomore who says participating in competitive robotics is helping her achieve a goal of working as an aerospace engineer.

"I'm thinking about a career in engineering and this seemed like a good way to get hands-on experience."

Also attending the event were exhibitors like USF College of Engineering student organizations, technology companies looking for their next employees and educational institutions ranging from St. Petersburg College to independent learning communities such as Real L.I.F.E. (Learning Is Found Everywhere) ALC (Agile Learning Center), looking for their next students.

Real L.I.F.E. Director Rebecca Musy says ROBOTICON Tampa Bay is a good fit for their educational model.

"It's an exciting opportunity for us to share our own revolutionary, paradigm-shifting educational system."

Facilitating the weekend of high-tech fun and competition at USF's Sun Dome was the university's College of Engineering. Dean Robert Bishop says supporting experiential learning is central to what the College does.

"Our mission in the College of Engineering is to profoundly shape and impact lives through the steadfast pursuit of world-class engineering research, education, and innovation. Our involvement and support of the ROBOTICON event is an example of how we help shape the next generation of problem-solvers, explorers, and creative engineers." Bishop also says that the high level of expertise and competency of the participants at ROBOTICON bodes well for the future of the world.

Judging by the smiles on the faces of the young competitors, many of them sporting Steampunk-themed fashion attire, the weight of the world was not something pressing upon their shoulders. According to organizer Steve Willingham, that is how it is supposed to be.

"It's done in a fun and purposeful way," he says. "They learn so much and don't even realize it."

To learn more visit FIRST Robotics, visit online and you can keep up with the work of Eureka! Factory at their website.