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April 18, 2018 | Tom Ballard

GUEST COLUMN: Importance of Tennessee FIRST Robotics event explained

Tennessee FIRST Robotics(EDITOR’S NOTE: We periodically publish guest columns on topics of interest to our readers. This one was submitted by Mike Wehrenberg, chairman of Tennessee FIRST Robotics.)

Over a thousand high school students from up and down the east coast spent three days in Knoxville last month proving our future is very bright.

Fifty HS robotics teams from nine states just spent March 22-24 at the Thompson Boling Arena in the annual Smoky Mountains Regional First Robotics Competition event. This competition, as part of the FIRST Robotics’ nationwide program, had teams prepare a specialized robot for a game called Power Up. They only learned the rules of the game on the first Saturday in January and then have just six weeks to build a 120 lb. robot to achieve the game’s goals.

But, the teams work all year. Some build their own companies, organized as 501(c)3 corporations, with CEOs, business development staffs, communicators, computer techs, and mechanics. They learn to forge alliances, raise money and build teams along with the science and engineering.

And, they seem to have a lot of fun along the way.

This year’s game focused on using three large scales on the field of play where the robots had to work to load “Power Cubes” and put the balance of the scale in their “favor.” Teams compete in 3-on-3 matches that have a 15-second “autonomous” mode followed by a two-minute and fifteen second “driver” mode. These alliances of 3-on-3 robots compete in 84 seeding matches followed by quarter-, semi-, and final matches to determine a winning alliance. There are also 15 judged awards at the event relating to the team’s efforts at promoting STEM-related goals with other schools and kids in the community as well as on various technical aspects of the team’s robot. The winning alliance – along with the Chairman’s Award, Rookie All Star, Engineering Inspiration award winners (as well as two wildcards) – is invited to championships held in Houston, TX at the end of April.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was started in 1989 to connect K-12 kids to the real world goals of good problem-solving, good team-building, and good business practices but do so in an exciting and competitive environment. It creates a “Sports of the Mind” in an exciting environment that brings all the benefits of an athletic competition but does so with electrical, mechanical, marketing, and business skills. K-12 students who participate in FIRST programs are 700 percent more likely to attend post-secondary education in a technology and business curriculum than a student who is NOT a FIRST team member!

This nationwide program has over 500,000 students participating, 250,000 volunteers who help, and brings over $70M of post-secondary education scholarships to participants from over 200 colleges and universities. It helps connect more women and minorities to the world of STEM, and it brings skills to our economy that are so sorely needed. Its benefit to our economy and to our critical workforce development needs is exceptional.

A final thought: There is an opportunity for your readers here.

USFIRST and TNFIRST, in support of connecting K-12 students to STEM programs in Tennessee, needs sponsors to help offset events costs such as venue rentals, food at the event, audio/video and IT costs, power, and safety equipment costs. Please reach out to for further information on FIRST sponsorships.

More importantly, these teams need funding for event registration, travel/lodging, computer and tool equipment, supplies, and build season expenses. Teams also need mentors and coaches who can assist them with their team business planning and execution as well as resources who provide technical assistance and support. Feel free to reach to find teams in your area (or to help start a team) that can use your support.

This year’s Smoky Mountains Regional competition resulted in a number of awards detailed in this document (Smoky Mountain Robotics Winners).

The nationwide program is managed by USFIRST – and the efforts in Tennessee are helped by TNFIRST – with both organizations being non-profit and 501c3 tax-exempt.

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