Robot Game: Houghton hosts robotics challenge

Kali Katerberg/Daily Mining Gazette Four FIRST Tech Challenge competitors race against the clock to score points by completing tasks using their robots Saturday at the FIRST Tech Challenge.

HOUGHTON — Competing for the chance to move on to state championships, local middle school students tested themselves and their robots.

Houghton Middle school hosted the inaugural FIRST Tech Challenge Saturday. With 20 teams competing from around Michigan, four will move on to the state competition in Battle Creek in coming weeks. FIRST is a acronym for the national organization “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”

“We are a program that is trying to get kids excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects to the point where they will stick with them through K-12 and go into college and beyond,” said event coordinator and team coach Melody Doig. The FIRST Challenge program is a nationwide competition that has been running for 12 years. This year is the third for teams in the Upper Peninsula to participate.

The competition itself takes the form of a game. This year it revolves around the concept of relic recovery.

The robots are used to remove “relics,” symbolized by foam cubes, a figurine and whiffle balls. These relics must be moved by the robots and placed within a designated area for points and return to a balance board home base within a 150-second time frame.

Two Android phones serve as the control system for the students’ robot designs.

The competing teams came from all over Michigan, with one large team coming all the way from Hartland.

One Hartland team coach works to ensure all participating students have a chance to develop their own skills and interests.

“We try to get them involved with things they like to do, and hopefully they learn other things along the way,” said Mike Cortichiato. “We have two or three students that love to program….They made this simulation of the game that you can actually play,” he said. “They’re learning a lot, which is the important thing.”

Having a range of skills on a team can be useful, since the students are judged on more than their robot’s design and operation skills. Part of their score takes into account team dynamics and requires meeting with the judges to introduce their work.

The FIRST program emphasizes both hard and soft skills, Doig explained.

“I’ve been coaching this since my son was in fourth grade,. He’s now a Tech graduate… He discovered programming as a result of this program. … I’ve also seen this program change lives,” Doig said.

Members of Houghton-based team, the Snowbots, indicated they wanted to continue in the FIRST program once they reached high school.