Full Steam Ahead

March 6, 2017

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Robots built by 48 high school teams will be steaming mad when they compete in this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition, which is themed after the Steampunk stylings of authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

School teams mostly from Utah but from as far away as California and Alberta, Canada, will be at the Maverik Center, 3200 S. Decker Lake Dr., on March 10 and 11 for the annual Utah Regional FIRST Robotics Competition. The event, co-sponsored by the University of Utah’s College of Engineering, is free and open to the public.

Titled “FIRST Steamworks,” the competition will have a retro-tech feel in which students build robots that must lob “fuel cells” (in the form of balls) into a mock steam boiler to build enough fuel to operate a simulated steam-powered airship. Meanwhile, robots also must transport giant gears to the airship to engage the ship’s propellers. Teams score points for each action. Finally, teams then must hoist the robots to their hovering airship to complete the round.

The Steampunk aesthetic combines science fiction or science fantasy with the design of industrial steam-powered machinery from the 1800s. In addition to books and graphic novels, Steampunk has been the backdrop for movies such as “Hugo” and “Wild Wild West.”

This year’s regional FIRST contest is the culmination of six weeks in which student teams design and order the parts for the robots, then build, program and test the bots.

“Every year this is a great opportunity for students to learn about science, technology and engineering in an exciting way that also promotes team-building,” says University of Utah mechanical engineering associate professor Mark Minor, who also is the event’s chair and co-volunteer coordinator. “And this year’s event is especially fun with the Steampunk style where many teams will dress up in period costumes and give their robots a cool design.”

Teams that win the Utah regional competition and possibly select award winners will move on to the FIRST national championship held April 19-22 in Houston and April 26-29, in St. Louis. In all, more than 85,000 high school students from around the world will participate in this year’s competition, which is in its 26th year.

The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition helps promote and foster science and technology learning among the nation’s high school students, creating a new generation of engineers, programmers and scientists.

“The University of Utah is pleased to be involved in this FIRST Robotics Regional Competition,” says Richard B. Brown, dean of the University of Utah’s College of Engineering. “In designing their projects, the students use the knowledge they have gained in high school science and math courses, and add to it the creativity that is such an important part of engineering. This competition opens the eyes of many students to the thrill of inventing something, which is what engineering is all about.”

Along with the University of Utah, the event’s top sponsors include the Larry H. Miller Group, Tesoro Corp., L3 Technologies and the STEM Action Center of Utah.