College of Engineering News Room
2018 ROBOTICON Tampa Bay
Learning Through Competition at Roboticon 2018
By Brad Stager
The future of technology converged upon the University of South Florida's Yuengling Center for some friendly competition at Roboticon Tampa Bay 2018, where kids, parents and mentors from across the Sunshine State gathered to have fun while learning about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts.
The USF College of Engineering hosted the September 29-30 event in partnership with the Foundation for Community Driven Innovation (FCDI), a Tampa Bay area nonprofit promoting STEM education.
According to Terri Willingham, FCDI's executive director, events like Roboticon are a synergy of academics and recreation.
"The challenges are fun, but also require learning computer science and engineering skills, and collaborative teamwork to solve problems, and those skills are applied in meaningful real world scenarios of limited time and budgets."
Roboticon Tampa Bay 2018 was an off-season event for the 51 school and community-based teams, with names like Children of the Swamp from Palm Beach and Space Unicorns of Girl Scout Troop 3131 from Tampa. They operate under the auspices of the not-for-profit enterprise known as For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), which promotes STEM learning through competitive challenges.
Roboticon rules of play require the students to remotely operate robots to perform tasks, such as picking up objects and placing them in a bin, within a set period of time. There are four age-appropriate levels of competition for ages 6-18.
Representing the College at Roboticon was Sanjukta Bhanja, who as associate dean of academics takes an interest in developing engineering talent. She visited each team to let them know about STEM career possibilities that could be realized by attending the USF College of Engineering.
"We really feel this event is a great asset for us if we can get these students interested in attending USF," she says.
"I want them in my classroom, and I want them in my makerspace."
Among the teams competing were the Mechanical Bulls of Bloomingdale High School in Valrico. According to Allison Carlisle, a social studies teacher and co-sponsor of the team, students are learning more than technology.
"These kids are amazing at problem solving, and they can apply that to any field. It's a big confidence builder." Her fellow club sponsor (and husband), English teacher Robert Carlisle, adds that the students quickly learn to operate independently. "I don't know as much about technology or robotics as I'd like to, but the members of the club run everything."
Allison also says the club has evolved into a robotics STEM course at the high school, which has proven to be popular with students like Christian Chavez, who is vice president of the Mechanical Bulls.
"I've been interested in this since elementary school and Legos was my thing," he says. "Now I want to be an aerospace engineer."
As it happened, this year's Roboticon theme was "Space," and one of the featured stars was Kurt Leucht, a NASA Kennedy Space Center software engineer who conducted a workshop showing how to apply for positions at the space-exploration agency.
"I was pretty young when I got the NASA bug," says Leucht, who adds that it's important to overcome doubts and reach for the sky when it comes to pursuing a career.
"I never thought I would get a job at NASA, but in college I applied for an internship at NASA, and after I finished it, they hired me."
For those wanting a closer look at an actual rocket, USF's Society of Aeronautics and Rocketry (SOAR) had theirs on display. SOAR President Stephanie Bauman says the organization is eager to engage with the next generation of STEM professionals.
"We have a significant outreach program and we like to extend that to young people in high school."
Other USF clubs and organizations were also on hand, like USF Racing, which explores engineering through motorsports, but the longest line was for the chance to try brain-drone racing, a hands-off, emerging e-sport whereby people wear a brain-computer interface to direct the flight of mini-drones, using the electrical energy produced by their brain waves.
It may sound like science fiction, but according to Nicholas Martinez of the IllumiCats from Ocala, "It was actually pretty cool. Once you get your concentration going, it's zooming."
Brain-drone racing is one of the activities demonstrating the work of the College's Neuro-Machine Interaction research lab in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, which is directed by Marvin Andujar, an assistant professor in the department. He says directing physical objects such as mini-drones with mental energy is a good demonstration of the possibilities available in a STEM career.
"We're reaching kids who are the future of technology and we're showing them that science and technology can be fun, and that there's no limit to what they can do."
Organizers say interest in robotics is increasing and attendance exceeded their expectations, with more than 1,600 Eventbrite tickets being distributed.
"Community enthusiasm for Roboticon has been off the charts," says Steve Willingham, who is the chairman of FCDI's board of directors.