Waterloo robotics competition feels like a rock concert

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WATERLOO — The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” is blasting from the speakers. Some people are sporting red Mohawks. Spectators are dancing in the stands.

This isn’t a rock concert, but it sure feels like one.

Welcome to the FIRST Robotics Competition at the University of Waterloo.

In the gym where the Waterloo Warriors play basketball, hundreds of spectators are watching and cheering as high school students from Waterloo Region and other parts of Ontario and the United States try to coax their robots to stack six recycling bins. The ultimate goal is to place a tall recycling bin at the top of the stack.

The time limit is 90 seconds.

Just like a basketball game, there are refs and a big-screen TV showing the action and latest standings. There is even a play-by-play announcer.

The competition is the highlight of a process that began in January when teams were told details of the challenge and given six weeks to build a remote-controlled robot. Some of them stand two metres tall.

On Friday and Saturday, 30 teams were competing for six spots in the world championship. Other feeder competitions are held in Canada and around the world. The Waterloo finals are set for Saturday afternoon.

If the UW competition is dramatic, the world championship will be absolutely wild.

Six hundred teams from around the world — Australia, China, Mexico, Brazil, the U.S. and Canada — will compete in St. Louis, Mo., at the end of April.

“We fill the Reliant dome there,” said Mark Breadner, executive director of FIRST Robotics Canada, a Toronto-based registered charity that runs the Canadian competitions. “It’s where the NFL team plays, and it’s full. It’s amazing. We take over the whole city.”

Members of the teams that qualify from Waterloo for St. Louis will have an easier time getting into a top-notch university, Breadner said.

“Universities more and more are looking at more than just marks. They’re looking at what have you done outside of school.”

Competition participants are eligible for scholarships. About $20 million is being offered by colleges, universities and companies.

Behind every robot at the Waterloo competition is a team of 25 students, who are mentored by university students and business people.

“You never see two robots that look alike,” Breadner said. “Every team has their own creative genius, and that’s what we want. We want to see creativity. At the same time, we want to encourage teamwork and leadership.”

Teamwork is needed to design and build the robot and handle all of the behind-the-scenes work.

“A team is kind of like a small business. They have to fundraise (to pay for the robot and the entry fee), so they have to have a marketing person. You have to have a businessperson who actually figures out how they’re going to raise the money and how they’re going to recognize sponsors.”

Some team members learn how to use drills and computer numerical control machines.

“But the communication, teamwork and leadership skills are priceless in my mind,” Breadner said. “Employers want people who can communicate and work as a team.”

He said the competition has a great partnership with UW. The university gives the charity the venue and helps plan the event.

“We can have an awesome event in their venue, but they’re also attracting some of the top minds to be on campus, possibly to apply to the university,” he said. “Studies say that 70 per cent of students that put their feet on a campus will apply to that campus, so it’s kind of a win-win situation.”

FIRST Robotics Competition has about 100 volunteers at the event, many of whom are UW alumni. Breadner took math and engineering at the university.

“It’s a really nice cycle. Kids get inspired (by the competition), they get motivated, they take good education, they get a job in a good field that’s in demand and they come back and they keep supporting FIRST. I call it the FIRST circle of life.”

FIRST’s name means “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”

The Waterloo competition is being beamed lived around the world via a webcast.

“This is probably the most-watched FIRST event out of any because we have very, very good teams that compete here,” Breadner said. “There are people all over the world who want to see how these teams are doing.”

Two students from St. David’s Secondary School in Waterloo said the experience has been great.

“We’ve had a couple of matches today,” said Danielle Zettler, Grade 11 student. “We’re performing pretty well,”

The 17-year-old said her team discovered a few design flaws and members were busy trying to fix them.

“It’s been a fantastic experience for everybody,” she said.

Teammate Hannah Delattre helped write a business plan for her team’s entry.

“It was a great experience,” said the 14-year-old Grade 9 student. “It’s like a family. Everyone’s really busy, but we’re all working together.”

Both teens are thinking of attending UW.


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