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‘Gracious’ robots get marching

‘Gracious’ robots get marching

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The Southern Oregon First Tech Challenge assembles for league competitions

When these ‘bots gear up, it’s in the name of cooperation, not elimination.

Members of Southern Oregon First Tech Challenge are gathering in November and December for practices and league meets in the Umpqua Valley, honing their robotics skills in hopes of advancing to state, regional and perhaps even world competitions in the months ahead.

But unlike the combative creations viewers might know from the television series “BattleBots,” the robots produced by Southern Oregon FTC members score points by designing robots that perform useful functions as opposed to attempting to destroy each other.

Linda Koontz of Winchester, an FTC organizer and longtime coach, pointed out that it wouldn’t make a lot of sense for Douglas County kids to design robots that knock each other into oblivion, given the efforts they put into fundraising for expensive equipment. Besides, that’s not the kind of lesson coaches and mentors hope the young robot designers will absorb.

In FTC events, teams form alliances and work together to create robots that may be tasked with hanging from a bar, placing a ball in a basket or pushing an object across a surface such as a table or the floor. Most robots at the start of a round must fit into a box that’s 18 inches all around. Later, the robots may sprout arms and levers that extend their range by 4 or 5 feet.

“Any damaging or destructive robots are disqualified,” Koontz said. “This is a gracious sport.”

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Not just gracious, but forward-thinking. Koontz, who once worked in the high-tech industry, said the skills students pick up in robotics events make them attractive to employers, especially those offering jobs in the STEM field.

Koontz said by the time they graduate from high school, these students will have experience in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, wiring and numerous other skills required to design, build and program robots. They’ll also be versed in teamwork and problem-solving.

“Not only do these events make math and science fun, but they also teach kids how to compete and win,” Koontz said. “What I see is that colleges recruit the kids that do this. Hands-on knowledge is important.”

This fall marks the first time area enthusiasts have had enough teams to organize an FTC league, which falls under the umbrella of the Oregon Robotics Tournament & Outreach Program and is for middle and high school students from grades 7 to 12. Often FTC students have already been involved in First Lego League (FLL) events, which also is growing in the Roseburg area and will have a tournament in Myrtle Creek in December.

Koontz first got involved in student robotics groups as a coach through 4-H. Because there were no school-based robotics activities, Koontz began exploring ways to link up with other area teams to form an FTC league. That’s when she discovered the Umpqua Valley STEAM Hub. In part through a STEAM Hub-sponsored activity held earlier this year at the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Umpqua Valley in Roseburg, Koontz was able to reach out to robotics teams in Douglas County, Medford, Grants Pass and Coquille. The formation of the Southern Oregon FTC league led in turn to three Roseburg-based events teams hope will qualify them for admission to an inter-league championship in January in Junction City. This fall’s league events in Roseburg are expected to draw about 125 to 150 attendees each.

“It’s exciting to see that commitment from kids, and the STEAM Hub has been awesome, helping us connecting with people and getting a location (for events),” Koontz said. “It’s been a great example of partnering with a scattered group of people from all over Southern Oregon who care about getting technology and students together.”

Come see technology in action!

The Southern Oregon First Tech Challenge robotics league is preparing for a December competition to see who qualifies for the January interleague championship in Junction City. Find out more about the statewide program by visiting ortop.org. And stop in to see what robotics teams have engineered at the December league meet. Details are below:

9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Dec. 12 — Umpqua Valley Christian School gym, 18585 Dixonville Road, Roseburg. Admission is free. For information, contact Linda Koontz at linkoontz@msn.com or 541-733-6560.