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Gearing up for robotics season

Regional teams learn about new game competition

From left, Dale Olgren, Calli Solka, Aili Harmon and Jeff Solka take apart an old robot from a previous robotics season on Saturday at Westwood High School. Also that day, the 2020 FIRST Robotics Competition season kicked off at Northern Michigan University. The event also included a reveal of the new game, “Infinite Recharge.” (Photo courtesy of Doug Elliott)

MARQUETTE — How can you defend the world from incoming asteroids with power cells, a shield generator and a part that resembles a lazy Susan?

When you’re part of the FIRST Robotics Competition.

FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — is a Manchester, New Hampshire-based nonprofit that designs programs to motivate young people to pursue education and careers in the STEM-related fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The 2020 kickoff took place on Saturday at the Glenn T. Seaborg Mathematics and Science Center on the Northern Michigan University campus, with teams from around the Upper Peninsula learning about what’s in store for them in the coming months.

Amanda Gibbons, FIRST Robotics education director for the state of Michigan, watched the event unfold.

A major part was the new game reveal, which was detailed in a video in Mead Auditorium.

“The game reveal is going to tell them what the robots that they have not built yet need to do,” Gibbons said.

The game is “Infinite Recharge,” which is what she called a Star Wars-themed challenge.

The game will be in partnership with Lucasfilm and The Walt Disney Company.

The FIRST website provides this synopsis of the game:

“Renewable sources of energy are everywhere, all the time,” it reads. “Working together in the 2020 season of FIRST Robotics Competition, Infinite Recharge, we can support boundless innovation and create a society that’s empowered, inspired and hopeful.”

Team members watched a video during the reveal, which provided some game details.

For example, droids and crews will collect renewable energy cells, which are deposited to a port.

The video also included a speech by Dean Kamen, FIRST president and holder of numerous patents.

“FIRST is nothing but a microcosm of the real world,” Kamen said.

He pointed out that robots will eliminate “mundane” jobs — a good thing for society.

“We are going to create a future for people prepared for it,” Kamen said.

Following the game reveal, each team picked up its “kit of parts.”

“The kit of parts is about $5,000 worth of materials donated by sponsors all over the world that help the team start to build its robot,” Gibbons said. “Then the kids will take them back to their home schools, and they will talk as a team, decide what their strategy is, what goals and objectives they want for their robot.”

The team then will fabricate its robot.

Helping one local team, the Westwood High School-based Westend Gearbusters, pick up its kit was Doug Elliott, who serves as coach and mentor.

Elliott said he would study the manual and look at videos to explain how the game works to give the team a better of idea of what to do and how to do it.

“I’m excited,” Elliott said. “There’s new thing in there that we’ve never done before, and that was a spinning disk, because we’ve thrown things. We’ve hung things.”

He also found another interesting item, the hanging bar that tilts; if partners get it to balance, they earn extra points.

That’s part of the game.

“We’re going to look at the points,” Elliott said. “We’re going to see what gives us the best points or the most points, or what we can score very quickly on to take advantage of that with our robot.”

Westend Gearbusters members come from Westwood and Ishpeming high schools, and involves home schoolers too, he said.

Elliott acknowledged a challenge comes from trying to raise money for the team.

“Thank goodness for the service organizations,” he said.

Most of the teams attending Saturday’s kickoff, Gibbons said, will participate in two competitions: March 5-7 in Kingsford and March 12-14 in Escanaba.

Gibbons believes it’s important for youngsters to take part in the FRC for a number of reasons.

“They’re at a really pivotal age in their development and it’s time for them to be exposed to areas of interests so that they can learn more about themselves and what they want to do with their lives,” Gibbons said. “This program allows them to network with professionals in their area and become part of a family that will accept them.”

She said FRC is the only competition that promotes “gracious professionalism” as a tenet of core values.

“It is the most accepting environment for any adolescent that you can possibly find,” Gibbons said.

For more information, visit firstinspires.org. To learn more about the Westend Gearbusters, contact Elliott at westendgearbusters@gmail.com or call 906-249-3792.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.