FIRST robotics at Georgian College

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There’s nothing new about hundreds of high-school students hurrying into a gym to gear up for a weekend sporting event.

What makes this group different is they don’t have to be athletically inclined to compete for, and win, these championships.

“This is a sport where you can go professional and you don’t have to have won the genetic lottery and stand seven-feet tall,” said Shawn Lim, director of district implementation for FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Canada.

As 34 teams of high-school students from central Ontario made their way into the pits to set up their stations for the FIRST Steamworks Robotics qualifying competition, the noise level in the gym at Georgian College in Barrie grew proportionally.

Standing a few inches short of even six-feet tall, Lim said he joined FIRST after being one of the first high-school students to enter the robotics competition in 1998 and the first Canadian recipient of a scholarship for computer engineering.

“This is STEM. It’s productive play,” Lim said above the din.

The easiest way to teach students about the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics is through learning play, said Lisa Banks, vice-president of external relations at Georgian College, and one of the people instrumental for bringing the FIRST robotics competition to Georgian for the first time.

Banks had heard about a robotics team meeting at the Barrie Public Library and wondered about setting up a team at Georgian College. At that time, FIRST was looking for a possible venue for a district competition and they were invited to visit Georgian, she said.

“It was meant to be. We contacted them at the right time and everything just came together,” Banks said.

Watching over the students as they carefully unpacked the robots they’ve been building since they received the competition instructions in January, Banks said this is the future of learning in Canada.

“These are among the best, the brightest students we’ve got in central Ontario. They’re passionate about this and FIRST is a brilliant organization to teach students to foster their career goals in competitions like this,” Banks said.

“But mostly, it’s about team work, it’s about collaborating and bonding with your competitors and learning to work together – after you’ve built a robot,” she said with a laugh.

The Georgian competition is hosting a qualifying round, where teams will be randomly matched with two other teams to create a blue team versus a red team.

The top ranked teams will then have their choice of choosing their next two collaborators in a draft round and try to win the championships here Sunday afternoon.

From there, the teams will head to Mississauga to compete at the district championships in April, and then attempt to win to attend the world competition at the end of April.

Wearing an orange T-shirt emblazoned with the Cybergnomes logo, team captain Cassidy Morgan was helping set up their temporary tech shop in the pits, Friday afternoon.

“I love this competition,” said Morgan, a Grade 11 student at Jean Vanier Catholic High School in Collingwood.

“It covers all aspects of fun, it’s really engaging and so diverse. Whatever field you want to study for a career in, you’ll learn about it here,” Morgan said.

Beginning Saturday at 8 a.m., teams will assemble to race in the Steamworks track, already assembled by FIRST crews.

In a time-warp flashback to when steam power ruled the planet, the teams will use their robots to collect fuel (plastic balls) and shoot them into a boiler. Other robots must pick up (moulded plastic) gears and race them over to the steam airship to help prepare it for flight.

The robots – each weighing no more than 140 pounds and standing four-feet tall – must then climb a rope to accompany the airship when it figuratively takes off.

Points are given for gathering fuel, gears and rope-climbing abilities.

“The best part is the competition,” Morgan said. “Everyone’s having fun and you see the hard work of the last six weeks it took to build the robot and think ‘I worked on that’. It’s thrilling and if something breaks, you know how to fix it.”

High-school students compete for bragging rights, as well as more than $12 million in scholarships.

Teams from across Canada will compete in the U.S. final competition with teams from the Czech Republic, Turkey, Brazil, Australia, China and more.

Sponsors, such as Honda, Nissan, Magna, Microsoft and locally, Prodomax Automation and Innovative Automation, are here for a reason, said Lim.

“It’s a great pool of people to draw from. This is where they’ll find their future employees,” he said.

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Check out the original article on the Barrie Examiner for more details.