Students build robot, mentor area high school students

February 12, 2015
2015 UW-Platteville FIRST Robotics competition

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — University of Wisconsin-Platteville students are racing the clock to build a robot, while at the same time giving area high school students an opportunity to build important science, technology, engineering and math skills.

The For Inspiration and Recognition of Sciences and Technology Robotics competition is an international event, during which high school students and mentors are tasked with building a robot during a six-week timeframe and taking it to competition.

The FIRST team at UW-Platteville – named the Cheese Curd Herd – is a collaboration of approximately 10 UW-Platteville students and 10 area high school students. Since the rules of this year’s competition were announced on Jan. 3, the team has been working five days a week to design, build and test the robot prior to the Feb. 17 deadline.

The theme of this year’s competition is “Recycle Rush” and the robots will be required to stack recycling totes and fill them with pool noodles, which will represent the litter. According to Duane Foust, UW-Platteville physics laboratory manager and mentor to the team, this year’s rules deviate largely from previous years, which focused on robot-to-robot contact. “Now, it’s all about control and being able to manipulate the game pieces very accurately,” said Foust.

Foust, who has been a technical mentor to the team for more than 10 years, said that the focus and drive of the students help the team stay competitive, even as they go head to head with teams that have more funding. “It is a world competition, and we have teams coming from all over, so we have to be able to compete against some of the teams that have large sponsors and significantly better funding than us,” said Foust, adding that some teams operate on budgets upwards of $100,000, while the team at UW-Platteville spends $4-5,000 to build a robot. Despite this difference, the team at UW-Platteville – one of the oldest in the state – has, in the past 10 years, won several regional competitions as well as qualified for internationals twice.

While the rules of the FIRST competition only require high school students to operate the robots at competition, Foust explained that the team at UW-Platteville prides itself on the importance of having the high school students lead the building process, under the mentorship of the UW-Platteville students.

“Our team likes to stick with the philosophy that the high school students should be the ones who build the robot, for the most part,” said Foust. “They work with the mentors – our students – but every one of them can point to a part on the robot they have drilled, milled, machined or turned.”

This philosophy has lent itself to a great recruiting tool as well, Foust noted.

“Many of the high school students on other teams see that [mentorship component] at the competition, and they come and check out UW-Platteville,” he said. “I go to the competitions and I promote UW-Platteville while I’m at the competitions and many of the students follow up with it.”

Involvement with the team pays off for the UW-Platteville students as well, who – several of them former high school participants themselves – are now finding the opportunity to hone their leadership skills.

“I was involved with FIRST for four years throughout high school,” said John Lambert, a sophomore computer science major from Platteville and current president of the team. “It did influence my decision to come to UW-Platteville and my decision to be involved with the team. I think FIRST is a great organization that really helps students learn a lot of important skills.”

Lambert added that being involved in the team gives him the opportunity to provide that important mentor role to high school students now – not only related to building the robot, but in any of the STEM-related fields. “High schoolers can come and get help with homework or have something explained by a mentor who is knowledgeable in the subject,” he said.  

Aaron Decker, a senior software engineering and mathematics major from Fond du Lac, Wis., echoed the importance of cultivating leadership skills on the team. “My favorite part of being on the team is the leadership experience I have gained,” he said. Decker was also involved on a FIRST team in high school in Fond du Lac, which contributed to his drive to help other high school students experience the same. “I thought that being on that team was the most meaningful experience of my high school years,” said Decker. “[My high school FIRST robotics team] is also the reason that I am now acting as a leader with the Cheese Curd Herd, so that the high school students we work with can have the same great experiences that I had in high school.”

The team will compete at the Central Illinois Regional competition in Peoria, Ill., in March and the Midwest Regional competition in Chicago, Ill., in April.
 

Written by: Alison Parkins, UW-Platteville University Information and Communications, 608-342-1526, parkinsal@uwplatt.edu

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