University of Scranton is last stop on way to world robotics competition

By Sandra Snyder / For The Scranton Journal

Imagine a cross between a science fair and a tournament-style athletic contest, with remote-controlled robots injecting extra electricity.

Welcome to “Sport for the Mind,” a competitive arena for the young and intellectual complete with hundreds of plastic balls.

From March 19-21, the University of Scranton will play host to a key leg of FIRST Tech Challenge, an international competition for seventh- through 12th-graders sponsored by FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to encourage STEM learning, or learning in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The students involved in this mind game-ballgame combo, however, also will learn leadership, networking and communication skills as they engage their specially designed robots in battle against one another in a game of goals, wisdom and will.

They also are already winners, as the teams that will gather at the University have won regional and state competitions that qualified them to participate in the East Super-Regional, or penultimate, leg of the competition. The East Super-Regional, which will begin at 10 a.m. March 19, will welcome 72 teams, representing states from Maine to Virginia, as they attempt to advance to the FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship from April 22-25 in St.  Louis, Mo.

This year’s game is called Cascade Effect, and each round will be played among four randomly selected teams, with two teams forming one alliance. Alliances can change quickly, however, meaning an alliance partner from one match might be an opponent in another.

Each team will contain two driver-operators, a coach and a Wi-Fi-enabled robot, some of which will have the ability to move autonomously with sensors. The robot initially must fit inside 18-inch cube but can grow after a match begins. On a square playing field, or approximately 10-by-10 pit, with a foam tile floor and low walls, the robots will aim to place up to 160 plastic balls – 40 baseball size and 120 golf-ball size – into a series of rolling goals, 30, 60 and 90 centimeters high. Higher points will be scored as height increases. Points also will be achieved for placing balls into a center field structure, which will rotate to one of three random positions. Beacons on each side of the structure will help guide the robots while in autonomous mode.

The field also will have alliance-specific ramps and parking zones, and teams will use their previously programmed robots to move their rolling goals into the parking zones. Points will be lost if goals tip over.

The public, which can view the three-day competition for free, can expect creative team names – Some Disassembly Required from Maryland or Rhode Rage from Rhode Island, for example – as well as decorated pit areas, given the nature of the competition also encourages imagination.

Thinking on the feet is another critical factor.

In qualifying competitions, students have encountered the unexpected: motors not working, wheels falling off or strings getting broken between rounds, for example.

Organizers and partners have called the failures part of engineering as well as integral to the entire process, which is designed to serve as a learning experience.

The East Super Regional Championship events will take place inside the John Long Center and the Byron Recreational Complex on campus. Teams and volunteers will check in on Thursday, with judging and inspections taking place from 1 until 6 p.m. and pits closing at 7. The pits will open again at 7 a.m. Friday, and opening ceremonies will begin at 9 a.m. Qualification matches will follow until noon and again from 1-5:30 p.m. after a lunch break. Pits will close at 6 p.m. Friday, with a team social set for 7:30-10 p.m. Pits will reopen at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, with qualification matches set for 8:30-10 a.m., alliance selection from 10-10:45 a.m. and division semifinals from 10:45 a.m.-noon. Division finals, from 1-2 p.m., will follow a lunch break, and finals will take place from 2-3 p.m. Closing ceremonies will take place from 3:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Other cities hosting Super Regional competitions are: San Antonio, Texas; Oakland, Calif.; and Des Moines, Iowa. Scranton and the other locations were selected as hosts based on timing, accessibility, safety, local support and resources to execute a strong event.

Approximately 20 teams are expected to advance from the Scranton competition to April’s world championships in St. Louis.