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Holladay Journal

High school robotics students Zoom in to AMES virtual robotics competition

Dec 14, 2020 11:34AM ● By Julie Slama

The 6th annual preseason robotics competition, hosted by AMES, will be virtual this year instead of in-person as it is shown here in 2019.

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

In December, high school teams from across the state will come together online to learn the results of the first virtual robotics contest.

The contest, hosted by Academy of Math, Engineering and Science (AMES) in Murray, has been an annual tradition to kick-off the high school FIRST robotics season, that begins in January. This year, the sixth annual contest was moved to the online platform, as the school itself is offering classes virtually this fall.

“Kids are deserving, and we want to give them every opportunity so we hope this is a way they can safety learn and compete,” AMES robotics coach Sara Whitbeck said.

However, the outlook of the FIRST season is unclear as the FIRST Lego League and FIRST Tech Challenge programs are competing remotely as regions are unable to hold in-person competitions, which usually attract large spectator crowds.

In late September, FIRST said it would include extending the high school robotics season, having remote engagement options, having a similar robotics challenge to last year and offering free FIRST home activities as part of its COVID-19 modifications. 

It also announced that as of then, with ongoing challenges of limited space, tools and robots for teams with remote and hybrid learning and limited opportunities for teams to travel, the season experience would not include in-person game play. However, the organization would re-evaluate their decision in January when this year’s challenge will be announced.

Last year’s FIRST robotics competition was cut short at regional qualifiers with the soft closure of schools nationwide because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Utah was able to hold its regional qualifier in early March 2020, a week before Utah schools shut down. However, many teams had planned to travel to Idaho in late March to attend that competition, but that was canceled as was the national tournament.

Whitbeck said that a positive addition to this years’ AMES preseason competition is the hope to attract teams outside of the Salt Lake Valley since they wouldn’t have to travel.

During the month of November, robotics students learned about the competition rules and had a chance to videotape the components and submit it.

One component of the competition that excited Whitbeck was creating a tutorial, which other teams could view to help them learn how to perfect some skill. Part of the philosophy of FIRST is “coopertition,” meaning competing always, but assisting and enabling others.

“We can then use these tutorials as a resource and library, which will help teams in normal years,” she said. “We hope teams will pick their strength or a skill they want to develop, whether it’s the electrical system, recruiting, business aspects and in a way, it will mentor others.”

Mentorship is something that is part of the culture of FIRST robotics whether it’s helping younger teams or lending a hand to another high school team. 

Two years ago, AMES’ 35-member team recently mentored the start-up team at Cottonwood High, as the two schools share the same building, to a successful season, competing side-by-side at nationals. Since then, Cottonwood has moved its robotics lab closer to AMES so they’re able to collaborate from ideas to equipment.

Even so, AMES students were only doing some of their usual preseason preparations this fall, Whitbeck said, between being online and not knowing what this coming season will look like.

“Coach Doug Hendricks dropped off, to the head of the electrical team, equipment to build a board for the program team to use to build and code programs for practice and they’re passing it along student to student, but it’s not in an organized space as usual,” she said. “Usually, we have hundreds of hours easily and students are here two to four times per week and would have been here in the summer working behind the scenes. This year, we’re hoping we’ll be able to compete.”