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The state championship, robotics style

Earlier this month, the top 32 robotics teams in North Carolina convened for a weekend at the Gilbert Craig Gore Arena at Campbell University for the FIRST NC State Championship. This season’s competition, called Destination: Deep Space, required teams to work in alliances and win points by successfully shooting cargo (rubber balls) and placing hatches over bins to keep cargo from escaping.

This isn’t at all like the Battle Bots you might have seen on television, so check out the video below for an animation on how points are scored.

This was my first time at a FIRST Robotics competition and, of note, there was so much activity happening beyond the stadium floor. Throughout the building, team members could be found sitting in the stands shouting cheers, loading their robots for competition on the court, or working on their bots in a backroom called the pit (safety goggles required) — where they also stood ready to answer judges’ questions.

Because this was no small event, several state leaders came to Campbell to kick off the start of the competition on April 6. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest shared that, when he worked as an architect, he actually helped to design the stadium at Campbell where the robotics competition was held, and that during his drives across the state, nothing got him more excited than the robotics programs.

“There’s a lot of people wondering how to create a 21st century education. Guess what? You guys figured it out,” he said. “The work that you’re doing now, the problems you’re solving — that’s going to be the way that we solve the problems of the future, by people like you working together to solve these challenges.”

The skill sets that students gain through robotics are not lost on companies, like Duke Energy, who depend on a STEM workforce and who sponsor several of the robotics teams.

“Duke Energy chooses to be here today and we choose to invest in you and your teams because when I look out at you, I see our future workforce,” said Amy Strecker, philanthropy manager at Duke Energy Foundation. “I see the colleagues that I want demonstrating ‘gracious professionalism,’ and I see the skills that our society and that Duke Energy needs to solve really big challenges.”

Competitors also received a surprise when one of the founders of FIRST Robotics and a MIT professor, Woodie Flowers, was introduced to give opening remarks. “The spirit of FIRST is alive in this room,” he said to a roaring crowd.

“The fact that the all-hailing king of FIRST visited our state — oh boy,” said Maryam Akbar, a junior at Research Triangle High School and programmer for the TerrorBytes (FRC 4561) team. “I saw him standing there, and I was just like, ‘Wait, but is it real? Is it Woodie?!'”

Woodie Flowers, one of the founders of FIRST robotics, chatting with students who added their signatures to his shirt. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Competition ready

The 32 participating high school teams in the state championship advanced after winning top rankings in regional robotics tournaments earlier this season, and these powerhouse teams represented the best from across North Carolina — both rural and urban.

Senior Emma Walker is a member of the Roto-Raptors (FRC 3737), based in Goldsboro. What’s unique about the Roto-Raptors is they aren’t attached to one particular high school — they are a community-based team, which means that Walker, who is homeschooled, can participate.

Although she originally wanted to be an English major, Walker changed her course of study when she got connected to mechanical engineering at Wayne Community College through Steven Reese, the college’s engineering and manufacturing instructor. 

“I thought engineering was just for boys, honestly,” Walker said. “But when Mr. Reese got me involved in taking mechanical engineering classes, I realized it was something I could do, and I wanted to see if it was something that I could maybe think of as a career path.”

The engineering classes inspired her to find a way to apply what she was learning, and she found a home on the local robotics team. 

“When I started robotics, I really got a big confidence boost working on the robots, seeing something that I had built with my hands come together,” she said. Next year, Walker will be going out-of-state for college. She’s decided to major in mechanical engineering.

Her teammate, Chris Cearny, who is also homeschooled, said FIRST Robotics changed his career goals, too. He wanted to be a pilot, but after the competitions, he now hopes to become a military engineer. And from the years of participating in competitions, he said he’s learned so much from other powerhouse teams.

“We all help each other out,” he said. “One of the things that I like about it is that when you go around and meet the teams, and you do this for a number of years, then you get to see people that you know and you start making friendships with other teams. These are teams that could be 55 miles away or over 300 miles away down in Asheville.”

Members of Goldsboro’s Roto-Raptors sharing marketing items with visitors. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Senior Vicky Liu helped to found her robotics team in Robeson County three years ago — which is new compared to many of the other state championship teams. In those three years, the team at Robeson Early College High School has grown to 41 members, including about 10 girls.

“It’s been pretty successful so far,” Liu said of Lumberton’s RobCoBots (FRC 6729). “We won a blue banner for every year, and we made it to states every year, too.”

Through competitions, Liu learned that there’s much more to FIRST than just building robots. She serves the team in marketing as an artist, a passion that has landed her a spot in the NC State College of Design next year.

Liu is a prime example of a robotics team member who contributes without actually being part of the technical building process. Anastasia Rynearson, assistant professor of engineering at Campbell University, said that through this broad range of talents, FIRST Robotics Competitions form a really great community with engineering values of collaboration.

Teams prepping their robots for another round of competition. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

“It’s better to have a broad diversity of ideas to be able to find the best one,” she said, adding that FIRST also helps create solid technical engineers.

“You can try your hand at programming,” Rynearson said. “You can try your hand at the wiring, the actual mechanisms of it.” In fact, she said, many of the engineering students at Campbell come from FIRST Robotics teams (and she herself is a FIRST alumna).

Rynearson’s research in engineering also includes identity formation in a sometimes not-so-diverse industry.

“How do people who aren’t seeing engineers like them become an engineer?” she said. This is also where FIRST comes in.

“Really feeling like you belong somewhere and getting something done and being part of something just bigger than yourself is really awesome,” said Anna Luking of the Hotbotz (FRC 2640) in Rockingham County (originally an all-girls team).

“Just taking constructive criticism and always understanding that you can be proud of yourself but be humble enough to have room to grow,” she added, “I think that’s a really important part of being a leader, which this program has taught me a lot about as well.” 

Members of the Hotbotz working on their robot off-court in the pit. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Her teammate Zachary Ore said being part of the team for the past three years has completely changed him.

“It’s opened me up in so many different ways,” he said. “It’s opened my communication up so much. When I first started, I was introverted at all these events. I wouldn’t go talk to anyone.”

These sorts of changes are also apparent to family members of competing students. Mary Jackson of Youngsville came to the competition to see her grandson’s team, the FranklinBots (FRC 5762) from Franklinton High School.

Though her grandson just joined for his first year in robotics, she said she’s noticed a difference in him since he started.

“I really have,” she said. “He’s more outgoing. He’s found a niche that he really enjoys being with and just a club where he enjoys the people.”

Only a few members from each team control the robots during competition rounds. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

But for many students, just joining a robotics team can be intimidating.

“Last year, there were probably only about six to 10 girls on the team,” said Maya Payne-Wiens, a senior at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. “I was really intimidated and almost didn’t return after the first couple of meetings.”

Now, she looks forward to competition days.

“It’s all of our hard work, and we get to see how the robot is actually going to run, and we get to compete with other people,” she said of the Zebracorns (FRC 900). “I have made so many friends here.”

Competition results

Team SPORK of Mooresville is one of the teams competing in Texas this week after advancing from the state championships. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

The top 15 ranked robotics teams from the state championships are currently participating in the FIRST Championship, held in Houston, Texas, through April 20. The following teams are representing North Carolina this week:

587 – Hedgehogs – Hillsborough
1533 – Triple Strange – Greensboro
2059 – Hitchhikers – Apex
2642 – Pitt Pirates – Winterville
2655 – Flying Platypi – Colfax
2682 – Boneyard Robotics – Greenville
3196 – Team SPORK – Mooresville
3737 – Roto-Raptors – Goldsboro
4290 – Bots on Wheels – Charlotte
4534 – Wired Wizards – Wilmington
4561 – TerrorBytes – Research Triangle Park
5190 – Green Hope Falcons – Cary
5511 – Cortechs – Cary
5854 – Glitch – Asheville
7443 – Overhills Jag-Wires – Spring Lake

More on robotics in North Carolina

Teams prepping in the pit. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

At the championships, teams also heard from  Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford, who made a special announcement on robotics in the state.

“There are all kinds of companies across North Carolina and across the United States that need skill,” he said. “They need talent. They need people like you.”

Because of this need, Hardister said he is sponsoring a bill, HB552, which would establish an educational and competitive after-school robotics grant program, require the State Board of Education to adopt rules for competitive robotics, and permit excused absences for competitive robotics events. Read more on the bill here

Of note, FIRST Robotics competitions aren’t only for high schoolers. There are K-12 offerings in four divisions. See the graphic below, and learn more here.

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.