Thousands flock to campus for FIRST Robotics

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SVSU played host to the FIRST Robotics state championship for the second year in a row, from Wednesday, April 11, until Saturday, April 14.

Over 5,000 high school students from 160 teams competed in the robotics competition. Factoring in parents, mentors and spectators, SVSU saw an estimated 8,000 people visit campus each day of the competition.

FIRST Robotics is a competitive robotics tournament that draws high school students from all over the world. Teams build robots that compete against each other in several rounds of games.

Qualifying teams will go on to compete at the world championship, which this year is split between Houston and Detroit.

Each two-minute round of the tournament involved three teams competing against each other with either autonomous or remote-controlled robots.

Alliances had to work together to move yellow “power cubes” into the goal area faster than the opposing alliance, and could also climb a structure in the arenas to earn extra points.

“There are four competition fields sponsored by different organizations, and the student teams are divided up into those competition fields,” said Adrianne Cole, the director of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math at SVSU. “The teams don’t compete as individuals, but actually form alliances with other teams.”

Competitive events occurred in the O’Neill Arena, where family and friends filled the bleachers.

Wednesday saw a flurry of activity at the Ryder Center as teams arrived for inspection and registration. Each team was assigned space in the fieldhouse, where they set up their robot maintenance pit. Most teams used these spaces not only as their repair shops, but also to display promotional materials about their robotics program and to interact with visitors.

The robot pits were open to the public for the length of the competition. All visitors were required to wear eye protection in the pits as teams got their robots into fighting shape and made last-minute repairs with power tools.

Qualifying rounds were held all day Thursday and Friday, and playoffs occurred Saturday. On Saturday evening, the winning alliance of team 3098, The Captains from Waterford, team 2586, The Copper Bots from Calumet, and captained by team 4003, the TriSonics out of Allendale, was crowned the champion of the competition.

“Michigan is an amazing place for robotics with 506 great teams, some of whom are legendary in the FIRST Robotics Competition, so we feel pretty humble to be the captains of the winning alliance at the Michigan State Championship,” said David Austin, one of the TriSonics’ mentors.

Austin noted the fierce competition and high level of skill shown by their competitors resulted in all five of their playoff series going to tiebreaker rounds.

“Our students always stayed positive, worked through a lot of problems, and worked really well with their partners,” Austin said. “We’re thankful to all the other Michigan teams that have helped us and inspired us over the years. We also have the support of great sponsors, and our parents always keep us going. We really appreciate SVSU for hosting such a wonderful event.”

Gov. Rick Snyder continued his tradition of visiting the Michigan FIRST state competition on Saturday. Snyder toured the facilities before talking to the crowd from the arena floor.

Snyder has been a vocal supporter of programs like FIRST Robotics, which he views as important for Michigan’s future competitiveness.

“FIRST Robotics brings science, technology, engineering and math to life,” Snyder said in 2017. “Team members learn skills they can use for the rest of their lives to solve challenging problems and follow a pathway to good-paying and rewarding careers.”

The robotics teams that compete in FIRST give high school students a chance to learn hard engineering skills, as well as how to work in teams and exhibit leadership.

“I’ve seen kids come in super shy, who don’t even know an Allen wrench from a socket wrench, and by the time they leave they’re getting scholarships for engineering from Michigan Tech or from SVSU,” said Sean Murray, coach of team 2619 of H.H. Dow High School in Midland.

First-year electrical engineering student Waluil Matin found his calling through robotics and competing in FIRST at SVSU last year. As an exchange student at Royal Oak High School planning to major in business, Matin was convinced by his host brother to give robotics a try.

“The first day I got there, they told me to take nails out of a plank of wood, and I’m like, ‘How do I do that?,’” Matin said. “I had zero knowledge about any mechanical or technical skills. But over the course of the whole (FIRST Robotics) season, I had built almost 30 percent of the robot.”

Matin is now studying at SVSU through a FIRST Robotics scholarship, which is given to FIRST participants who matriculate into SVSU. As an international student coming from a family of modest means, the FIRST scholarship was critical to Matin’s ability to enroll.

“I can confidently say, if it weren’t for FIRST, I would not be in this country right now,” Matin said. “They helped out so much.”

Members of team 5517 from Madison Academy Charter School in Burton were happy to be in attendance, having qualified but barely raising enough funds in time to travel to SVSU.

“This is an amazing opportunity, and anyone who has a chance to should definitely try it,” said Jesse Estes, a competing student from team 5517.

Michigan is known as one of the toughest robotics states to compete in. With more robotics teams registered with FIRST than any other state, Michigan forms its own division within FIRST Robotics.

“It makes it more exciting; all the competition makes it feel like when you win, you’ve accomplished something tangible,” said Emily McCuaig, also of team 5517. “It’s really hard to make it out of over 500 teams into the top 160.”

Murray also noted the high level of competition in Michigan.

“Michigan teams are very tough,” Murray said. “Texas and Oklahoma are known for their football, Michigan is known for its robotics. We have more world champions, more multiple-time world champions and more Hall of Fame teams than any other area in the world.”

To better accommodate both robot and pedestrian traffic in the Ryder Center, Campus Facilities widened some of the doorways leading between the arena and the fieldhouse.

“Last year, there was only one-way traffic into the arena from the fieldhouse where the pits are,” Cole said. “So this year, we were able to make another doorway to enter the arena for two-way robot traffic. So we have robots going one way, and people still have to go around if they’re not part of that robot team.”

The shuttle system used to move participants and spectators from the free parking and RV lots to the Ryder Center also worked well to manage traffic and parking on campus.

Last year, FIRST brought a measurable spike in local economic activity, estimated to have been over $1 million by the Great Lakes Bay Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau. Organizers expect a similar impact this year.

Thousands of STEM students on campus also provided SVSU with a recruitment opportunity.

“We received many positive comments from students and parents last year, including from a significant number who had no prior exposure to SVSU,” said SVSU spokesperson J.J. Boehm. “As more and more high schools restrict or eliminate visits in the schools by college admissions representatives, outreach opportunities such as hosting FIRST Robotics are increasingly important to our overall recruitment strategy.”

Boehm also noted that SVSU currently has 16 incoming freshmen who, before competing in FIRST Robotics on campus last year, had no experience with the university.

While there is no contract or announced plan to continue holding FIRST Robotics’ state championship at SVSU, Cole hopes the competition will return next year.

“It’s on a year-to-year kind of basis, but I think making that additional space for robots to move in and out really did tell FIRST Robotics we’re serious about hosting the competition here,” Cole said.

The campus community was again heavily involved this year, with more than 300 students, alumni, faculty and staff members volunteering their time in and around the competition area.

“A huge thank you goes out to all the volunteers,” Cole said. “Whether it’s been a couple hours at a time, or four hours, or all day, we take them for when we can get them. We’re really appreciative for the whole campus community coming together, because it takes a village to do this, for sure.”

Cole also thanked the rest of the campus community for their patience during FIRST Robotics.

“Even if they’re not volunteering, a huge thank you to campus,” Cole said. “I know it’s frustrating sometimes to have all these additional people on campus, but I think it’s really helpful in the long run to bring more students on campus.”

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