When you think of robotics what comes to mind?

My 14 year old son started high school this year, and I feared, like many other mothers with children like mine, that he would rot his brain with nothing but video games, Minecraft and talking to his friends via Skype.  I would sit and watch him on his headset for hours, lamenting the fact that this child who once played tee-ball, soccer and football would become a permanent fixture on my couch and never move away from home.

When he went to orientation in August, he came home with an almost zealous light in his eyes.  His high school, Olympic Renaissance in Charlotte, NC, had brought their robot, “Reptar” out for a demonstration.  He said, “Mom, I want to join the Robotics team”.  I had no idea that there even was such thing as a robotics team, let alone that the high school had one.

I went to the first competition in the fall, not knowing anything about what I was going to experience.  When I tell you that I was flabbergasted, I mean, jaw-dropping awe-struck at what these kids had accomplished.  US First, which stands For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, has developed multi-age programs for children that are interested in science and technology.  Junior FIRST Lego League is for children ages 6-9, and they get to design and build Lego robots, learn about the challenges of math and science, and enter beginning competitions. FIRST Lego League is for ages 9-14 and this older age group not only uses design strategies to build more complex robots, but also competes in official tournaments and can win an invitation to the World Festival.  FIRST Tech Challenge is for grades 7-12.  These kids design, build and program robots for team competition.  They have to learn form alliances, work cooperatively and compete against each other in a 12×12 arena.

Then we get to the “big boys (and girls)”.  FRC or FIRST Robotics Challenge has been called a “Varsity Sport for the Mind”.  Imagine teams of high school children working along professional engineers to design, code, and build a competition robot.  They have to design their own “brand” as well as raise funds to help them achieve their goals.  There are strict rules, limited resources and time limits in which to basically get as close to “real world” engineering as possible.

RETRO TOYS © 1998 PhotoSpin www.powerphotos.comThe teams need sponsors, which are usually large engineering and software companies that are quite frankly, looking for the next generation of great minds.  These kids in a 6 week time frame, have to not only learn the “game” of the competition year, they have to write the code for the robot, design it, build it, test it, and make sure that it is functional in time for high stakes competitions.

The teams have mascots, their robots are state of the art and technically savvy, and the excitement during competition is palpable.  The arena is filled with 6 robots, 3 on each team, working to complete the tasks set forth by the rules of the game and get the most points in doing so.  There are cheers when the robots do well, anger if they miscalculate, and even tears if the robots don’t compete as well as the kids hope.  When you add in the fact that some of the best science and technology companies in the world are watching these competitions, this is high stakes drama.  FRC gives out over $20 million dollars in annual scholarships, offers paid internships, and provides real-world experience.

1218_4881334I jumped for joy when our robot “Littlefoot” did well.  I got angry when he didn’t move like I wanted him to.  (If you are wondering about the dinosaur references, Team 4935 is sponsored by Rexroth Bosch, and T-Rex is the mascot).   When the pulley broke after the second round of competition, I felt the gut clenching disappointment and fear that the kids wouldn’t get it fixed in time.   This past weekend, we competed in the Palmetto Regional in Myrtle Beach.  66 teams attended, with mascots ranging from Flying Platipi, Vipers, Honeybees and Sharks.  I was in awe of the competition, the intelligence, the sportsmanship and the talent of these kids.  If you ever get the chance to see a competition in person, they are always free and definitely worth watching.

We still have the parenting battles over how much computer time to have, but after seeing how hard my son and his team work to compete in this amazing venue, I give him a little more slack.  Who knows, I may have the next great scientific mind in my house!  (If only he could learn to pick up his clothes…)

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Melissa McAtee

Melissa McAtee

I'm a single mom of 2 originally from the Midwest. How many people can you say that you know from the Town of Normal? I have one son, age 14 and one daughter, age 17. I'm also engaged to be married in June, 2015. We also have 2 furbabies, Tinkerbella Pixiedust, a 9 pound Chin-Tzu, and Jack Sparrow, our rescue Boxer. I have quite a few nicknames; including Mama Mack, Wonder Woman and Chocolate Mary Poppins (all of which are totally true....).