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Mariner to host Florida FIRST Tech Challenge

By Staff | Dec 3, 2014

More than a dozen robotics teams from area high schools will test their skills Saturday in Cape Coral at a Florida FIRST Tech Challenge.

The second meet of the year for the Pinellas County League, the competition will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Mariner High School. William James, an engineering teacher at Mariner and the team coach for the “Tech Warriors,” said 15 schools from Southwest Florida were signed up as of Tuesday.

“The kids have a blast at this because it is challenging. It’s like a football game for nerds,” he said.

The student teams design and build robots with both driver- and autonomous-controlled behavior, according to the Florida FIRST Tech Challenge website. By using the robots to perform tasks defined in the challenge, the teams compete with – and against – one another in qualifying competitions.

There are three “meets” for the local league, which lead to a state championship.

“Each state has their own competition,” James said. “It’s not just nationwide, it’s worldwide.”

He explained that the state winners go on to the national competition, and so on.

This year’s challenge is called “Cascade Effect.”

“Each year, the competition changes,” he said, referring to the tasks in the challenge.

The tasks vary from knocking down a pole to releasing balls and picking the balls up, to lifting up and dropping the balls into tubes of various heights – all to earn points, and all done using a robot.

The first 30 seconds of the competition is the autonomous mode, which requires the teams to program the robots to complete the tasks on their own. After that, the students guide them using controllers.

The challenge requires the use of engineering, robotics and programming skills.

“These kids get the motors, they get the wireless communication systems, and they put it all together themselves,” James said. “These are, hopefully, the engineers of the future.”

The competition sets guidelines for what equipment, like motors and controllers, the teams can use.

“They have to all use the same ‘brain,'” he said. “They have to stay within those boundaries.

The teams must keep an engineering notebook, which they are judged on.

“They have to have a notebook showing the entire history of the robot,” James said.

The students are also judged on a video that they turn in, as well as team spirit.

“It’s quite, quite extensive what we do,” he said.

The Mariner High “Tech Warriors” are made up of approximately 25 students. While it took the team about six to eight weeks to build its robot, not every team member has the same role or duties.

“It’s not just about building the robot,” he said. “We also have a laser machine, where we cut out some of our own parts – we make our own T-shirts. I have a crew who does nothing but programming.”

All of the team members work hard to get ready for the challenges.

“They do a lot to prepare for this. They come here every night and work on this,” James said. “These kids put everything into it.”

Saturday’s competition is open to the public. Admission is free.

“We didn’t do so good last year,” he said of the challenges, adding that it was his first year as coach. “Hopefully, this year we’ll do better. We’re always hoping to make it to the state championship.”

The challenge on Saturday will wrap up with a small awards ceremony.

“It’s just a quick one,” James said.

For more information on the Mariner High School “Tech Warriors,” contact James at the school at (239) 772-3324 or via email at WilliamEJ@LeeSchools.net.

For more information on Florida FIRST Tech Challenge, visit: www.flfirst.org.

Mariner High School is at 701 N. Chiquita Blvd., in north Cape Coral.