High schoolers compete for scholarships

The First Robotics Competition brought some prospective students to the U.

Lake of the Woods High School sophomore Cale Ubel of team Robo Bears makes adjustments to his robot Friday at Mariucci Arena.

Lake of the Woods High School sophomore Cale Ubel of team Robo Bears makes adjustments to his robot Friday at Mariucci Arena.

Rebecca Harrington

While music blared from the speakers in Mariucci Arena Saturday, the crowd erupted in cheers. But it wasn’t hockey players that were competing — it was robots.

High school students filled the University of Minnesota’s Williams and Mariucci arenas Friday and Saturday, competing to qualify in the national For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics Competition, co-sponsored by the College of Science and Engineering.

For many, the competition was more than a chance at nationals. Participants can qualify for a total of over $14 million in scholarships. This year, seven $5,000 to $10,000 scholarships were awarded to prospective CSE students.

“This is such a great program for the kids to be involved with, especially because they can get college scholarships,” said Sharon Kinney, whose twin sons were participating in the FIRST competition for the second year.

In the past six years, Minnesota’s FIRST teams have grown from two to 154 –– the third most in the nation.

“There’s so many Minnesota teams now, we’re out of space,” said Mark Lawrence, one of the event’s planners.

Two years ago, the competition only took over one building. Next year, Lawrence said, two University arenas may not be enough.

This year’s competition was called Rebound Rumble, involving two three-team alliances facing off in a basketball-like game.

The 27-by-54 foot field had four hoops at each end and three balancing ramps in the middle. The students controlled the robots to try and score baskets in the hoops and balance on the ramps in the roughly two minute matches.

“It really teaches you about hard work and leadership,” said Devyn Hedin, Elk River High School junior. “I mean, you have six weeks to build a robot — that’s not very long.”

One of the main principles of FIRST is cooperation over competition, said Sara Etzel, a FIRST coach. To represent that value, the organization has trademarked the word “coopertition.”

“All the kids want all the teams to succeed,” said Will Durfee, CSE professor and FIRST judge.

They are not only rooting for each other, he said. Participants and their mentors are expected to have “gracious professionalism.”

“I’m not allowed to have hubris,” Etzel said.

Good sportsmanship is not only a key principle of FIRST, she said — it’s common sense in a competition where robots can frequently break.

“Unlike other major sports competitions, the emphasis here is focusing on teamwork and making sure that everybody performs at their highest possible level,” said Yoji Shimizu, a University Medical School professor who emceed the event.

For these reasons, CSE actively recruits FIRST participants, Shimizu said.

“This is kind of the cream of the high school crop, so we really want them here at the University,” Durfee said.

Maggie Nelson, a bioproducts and biosystems engineering freshman, came to the University after receiving a $5,000 annual scholarship through FIRST.

Nelson said the communication skills she developed through FIRST helped her transition to the University.

“Students come in, and they have a ton of knowledge about all the technical components of building a robot, but part of it, too, is developing the interpersonal relations and being able to communicate different ideas,” she said.

The people she met through FIRST all had a “huge impact” on her life, Nelson said.

Ethan Oscarson is a senior in high school and has been a FIRST participant since elementary school. He received the same scholarship as Nelson, which he said was a “big factor” in his decision to attend the University in the fall.

“The college is investing in this as well with scholarships, and so, hopefully, this is a hook to get these people,” Durfee said.