Laura Seitz, Deseret News
WEST VALLEY CITY — After six weeks of preparation, including long hours after school and on weekends, Skyline High School sophomore Samuel Adams was putting the finishing touches on his team's robot, Kevin III.
Adams was surrounded Thursday by students, tools and assorted robot parts at the Maverik Center, where 44 teams from high schools in 10 states were checking in and touching up their designs for the FIRST Robotics Regional Competition, which kicks off Friday.
Surveying his competition in "the pit," where students were fiddling with electronics and cutting off spare parts with hacksaws, Adams said he felt good about Kevin III's odds.
"I think we have a fairly good chance," he said.
The two-day event, which is free to the public and runs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., consists of bouts where six robots, divided into teams of three, have 2 minutes and 15 seconds to score as many points as possible by either throwing disks into goals or by climbing up one of two pyramids positioned in a 27-by-54-foot field.
The robots, which vary in both size and design, are built from scratch by students, incorporating various strategies to win the competition. Some robots climb, while other robots, such as Kevin III, throw. Adams said Kevin III is manually loaded by students on the sidelines and uses a spinning wheel to launch discs.
"We're still tweaking it a little," he said. "It was a pretty packed six weeks."
The event is co-sponsored by the University of Utah's College of Engineering. Associate professor Mark Minor said the competition is intended to help students experience real-world engineering scenarios and realize that science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education can be fun.
Each team is provided with a basic kit of robot parts, which essentially includes a frame, wheels and the computing system to propel those wheels, Minor said. From there, students build from scratch whatever design they can devise to compete in the event.
"The things these kids create are absolutely inspiring," he said. "They really have to challenge themselves, and I'm really impressed with the solutions they come up with."
FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is a nonprofit organization focused on introducing students to STEM education. The organization runs programs for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, such as the FIRST Lego League, the FIRST Tech challenge and, at the high school level, the FIRST Robotics Competition.
Richard Anderson, Utah regional director of FIRST, said students who participate in FIRST programs attend college at higher rates than their peers and are more likely to major in STEM fields.
"This is STEM. This is science, technology, engineering and mathematics in action," Anderson said of the robotics event.
Rien Reid, a senior at Hillcrest High School, said he plans to study engineering in college, possibly at Utah State University. His team's robot HARV-E, derived from "highly accurate vehicle extraordinaire," is a thrower like Kevin III, though painted green and proudly sporting its NASA sponsorship like an Indy race car.
"NASA's our biggest sponsor," Reid said. "We probably wouldn't be able to do it without them."
During the recent legislative session, investment in STEM education and a need for more STEM graduates was a top priority for Gov. Gary Herbert as part of his push to see 66 percent of Utah's adults holding a postsecondary degrees or certificates by 2020.
In addition to endorsing the 66 by 2020 goal, lawmakers also passed HB139, which appropriated $8.5 million in one-time funding and $1.5 million in ongoing funding for the creation of a STEM action center.
"I feel very good about what they've done and how they've done it," Herbert said of lawmakers at the end of the 2013 Legislature. "The fact that we're going to be putting probably around $20 million of new money into STEM education is a significant step forward."
Anderson said Herbert is scheduled to visit the robotics competition Friday to meet some of the teams, as well as speak at a VIP event.
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