Michigan State University computer science pioneer Noah Vermeulen discovered his passion for computer engineering by participating in robotics competitions as an elementary, middle, and high school student.
“If I hadn’t participated, I wouldn’t have known how much I loved computer programming,” Vermeulen said. “I might have majored in something else and realized it wasn’t right for me and had to start over with something different, but because of all my experience programming bots, I already knew what I wanted my career to be.”
Saturday’s ThunderQuest Community Schools Event was held in Utica – the largest regional Inspiration and State Recognition (FIRST) Lego Robotics Championship. Utica Ford II High School in Sterling Heights. The event featured 36 challenge teams, for ages 8 to 12, and seven exploration teams, for ages 6 to 10.
“Michigan is a huge state for robotics, and at one point, we had more competitors than all the other states combined,” said Jury Chair Dan Chambox. ‘We are still the leading country for competitors.’
The focus is on problem solving. Although it’s a competition, ThunderQuest isn’t meant to be crazy. Students learn about teamwork not only within their own teams, but in terms of interacting with other teams as well.
“If the opposing team’s battery dies, you’ll loan them back up,” Chambucks said. “It would be like engineers from GM and Ford sharing information in order to solve a problem.”
Gentle professionalism and working together for the common good are the themes of the competition.
Lego robots also help prepare young engineers and scientists for the real world. Sometimes a robot that his team spent so much time developing and performed flawlessly during training sessions suddenly deviates during competition. Students are taught to use their problem-solving skills to troubleshoot a problem.
As one Webber Wonders cast member explained to the panel of judges: “It screws up sometimes and it’s not our fault and it’s not the robot’s fault.”
At the challenge level, teams build and program a Lego robot that must then perform certain tasks, called quests, in 2.5 minutes. The robot may run wind turbines or load things into the trash. Several color sensors are designed to keep the robot on the black track that performs all the different tasks on the competition table.
These robots are not operated by remote control, but by being pre-programmed. There is one corner of the competition table where team members can touch the robot and make adjustments to it. Once it’s out of that area, the team has to trust that the robot will do what it has been programmed to do. The bot earns team points while performing tasks correctly in the allotted time period.
“Each team gets four chances and the highest score out of the four is the one entered as points for the competition,” Chambucks said. “If they have to touch the robot when it is outside the allowed area, points are deducted.”
Messmore Elementary School students Ace Vrvovski and Iriha Shah explain a little about what went into building their robot.
“We had a few different plans that we were looking at, but we decided this was the best plan because of the size of the wheels and because of the color sensors,” said Vrfovsky, turning the robot on its side to explain.
Teams appear before a panel of judges and explain their innovative project, a real-world problem they are trying to solve, talk about their robot design, talk about core values and how team members work together to achieve goals. The judges ask questions and provide feedback to the teams.
“In addition to learning computer programming and robotics, I learned how to talk to people as a result of these competitions,” Vermeulen said. “I learned a lot of people skills and leadership skills that really helped me in college.”
ThunderQuest has entered its twenty-first year and many of the judges are former competitors or parents to former competitors.
Curtis Desail started as a team coach when his two sons were competing, but after they went into robotics in high school and into college, he continued to volunteer as a judge. He now also has two volunteer judges. Like Vermeulen, Roger Desaele credits Lego robotics with sparking his interest in engineering and helping him find his passion.
“I have submitted a lot of job applications, and my experience in robotics has really helped me to participate in these competitions,” said Roger Desail, a sophomore at the University of Auckland studying mechanical engineering. “I recently applied for 11 jobs at the job fair, and 10 companies are interested in speaking with me.
“Most of them told me that they don’t usually talk to sophomores, but the amount of robotics experience you’ve made is the difference.”
The results of the ThunderQuest FIRST Lego robotics regional competition on November 12 will be available soon at flstournament.com.
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