Woodlands robotics team returns to global championship

April 21, 2017

Forty-five students from a Woodlands-based world-champion robotics team are among 15,000 students who gathered Thursday for the start of what organizers say is the “world’s largest robotics celebration” at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

“We need more engineers in our society,” said Oak Ridge High School senior and veteran robotics competitor London Darce. “Robots are taking over the world, so you want to be the one that’s building them, not the one that they’re replacing.”

Her team, Texas Torque, is one of several Lone Star state teams in the competition. It previously has been a winner at the global championship.

As a result, Conroe ISD agreed to construct new robotics labs at The Woodlands College Park High School and Caney Ceek High School, said Texas Torque mentor Sherry Coates. The new $2.5 million facilities are set to open next month.

The Conroe ISD students were among the more than 15,000 K-12 grade students to descend on Houston this week, arriving from 24 states and 33 countries for the 2017 FIRST Championship. It is an annual robotics competition presented by telecommunication equipment company Qualcomm, Inc.

“It’s exactly like sports except we’re using robots instead of humans,” said Darce.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is the ultimate showdown for student robotics teams around the world, combining sports with the challenges of science and technology.

Inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen founded the New Hampshire-based nonprofit in 1989 to encourage students to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education.

FIRST, in partnership with National Instruments, came to an agreement in 2016 to get robotics recognized as an official varsity sport in school districts across Texas. This year, the initiative brought hands-on science learning to 1,500 Texas students.

“This is the sport where every kid can go pro,” said FIRST President Don Bossi. “The skills they’re learning here are directly transferable to a whole host of careers where there is a shortage of people.”

FIRST Championships are held in various locations around the nation to immerse its participants in diverse cultures and accommodate low-income students who aren’t able to travel.

This year marks FIRST’s arrival in Houston and it is set to remain here annually until 2020 - generating what promoters estimate will be $30 million for the Texas economy. FIRST chose Houston because of the GRBCC’s capacity to hold their attendees, but also for the STEM-centric attractions, such as Johnson Space Center.

In advance of the competition, students spend 6-8 weeks building their robots for regional events to qualify for FIRST. If qualified, they ship the robots to the Championship’s host city. Each team has an assortment of students from different high schools within the same area

Throughout the pits at GRBCC, teams were identifiable by their costumes: Texas Torque wore black but other teams had brightly colored t-shirts with team logos and matching dyed hair.

During 2 1/2 minute matches on a synthetic green field, participants stand on two “airships,” or platforms as their robot races across the field to relocate green balls rolling around the area, meant to represent the robot’s “refueling.” The robot then delivers fake gears to the airship “pilots” and are placed on the airship’s corresponding rotors.

The main objective of the game is to get each robot hooked onto the airship and raised off the ground, despite their massive weight.

“Quite honestly, when I first heard of FIRST - you know, you hear ‘robots,’ and quite admittedly, I thought ‘this is a little dorky,’” said Jennifer Brunelle, the director of Positive NRG, a FIRST sponsor. “But when you talk to the students and see how much they’re learning, it’s so much more than robots.”

The winning teams at this year’s FIRST Championships will be awarded after their final matches at Minute Maid Park Saturday.