The FIRST Robotics Smoky Mountain Regional Competition returned to the Thompson Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee this year for another thrilling two-days of competition. Forty-nine teams representing nearly ten states competed with the ultimate goal to advance to the national competition in St. Louis in April. This year’s competition had an official game theme of steamworks, giving a nod to the Victorian-era style that favors gears, mechanical innovation, and the use of steam as fuel.

The 2017 FIRST Robotics competition floor at the Smokey Mountain Regional competition.

In steamworks fashion, the robots competed to gather items, building steam fuel to prepare its hypothetical airship for launch in a long distance flight. During the competition, teams formed three-team alliances, each competing against another to gather enough steam to propel its ship further into space than its opponent. The teams had less than three minutes to guide their robots to gather fuel, or balls, and shoot them into the boiler, then pick up gears and quickly bring them to human team members where they were added to the airship in preparation for launch. Extra points were awarded to alliances whose bots could climb aboard the airship at the end of the competition.

Teams, comprised of students, mentors and volunteers, had only six weeks to build and prepare their bots for competition. Students focused on the technical aspects of physically building and maintaining the robot, but the creativity and excitement centered on the FIRST steamworks theme encouraged them to focus on the inventiveness and fun of the competition.

IACMI teamed up with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville College of Engineering to encourage continued education in STEM fields.

Students on a FIRST team learn the engineering skills to build a robot, but what students, mentors, and volunteers find most useful is the ability to learn to work together in a multidisciplinary team. “No one is put in a box,” said Knoxville Catholic High School senior, and “Robotichauns” safety co-captain Madelyn Fahhoum. She explained, “What is cool about FIRST is that each FIRST team is a company, and there is something for everyone. You can work on physically building the robot, but you can work on the business side if you prefer that, too.” Mary Daffron, former member of the Knoxville Catholic High School robotics team and now mentor, claims her participation in FIRST Robotics inspired her to pursue an engineering degree, saying “I was exposed to everything from mechanical systems to advanced materials, and I believe that my experience with FIRST was part of my decision to work with composites.” Daffron is now one of over thirty students working at the University of Tennessee Fibers and Composites Manufacturing Facility with Dr. Uday Vaidya, IACMI CTO.

Mentors from Oak Ridge National Laboratory cheer on teams in competition.

IACMI founding CEO, Craig Blue, has been involved in FIRST for 7 years, and is a FIRST team mentor for Hardin Valley High School. Blue and IACMI also recognize the multidisciplinary benefits of learning at a young age to be excited about STEM, communicate with teammates, and work together to build an efficient robot. “Mentoring the next generation of scientists and engineers is one of the most impactful things I’ve been involved with in my career”, Blue added.

John Unser, IACMI Project Director, has a passion for FIRST Robotics and volunteered as the field supervisor for this year’s regional competition. “There’s nothing more rewarding than cultivating young minds for success in the STEM fields, and seeing the enthusiasm and innovative thinking they bring to the table,” Unser said. Other IACMI staff members, such as Alison Kuipers, also volunteered as field maintenance staff.

After taking first place in last year’s regional competition, the Hardin Valley “RoHAWKtics” had another great showing, making it to the semi-final round winning the Chairman’s Award. The Chairman’s Award recognizes the “RoHAWKtics” as the team that best represents a FIRST team because it embodies the purpose and goals of FIRST.

At the end of the competition, The Warren G. Harding High School “Delphi E.L.I.T.E” (Team 48) from Warren, Ohio; the Farragut High School “Flagship” (Team 3140) and the Westminster Academy “Shark Attack” (Team 744) from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. was the alliance that won the regional competition and will all progress to the National FIRST Competition in St. Louis later this month.

FIRST was founded in 1989 and is a world-wide program that engages students from kindergarten through high school in STEM fields. Students, mentors in STEM professions, and volunteers comprise FIRST teams who work together to build robots that compete specific tasks. Teams ultimately compete against one another each school year in regional, national, and world-wide events.

FIRST strives to introduce kids to STEM fields through an exciting activity, and to encourage teamwork, imagination, and communication among the teams. More than 460,000 students participated in FIRST in the 2016 – 2017 school year; and more than 230,000 mentors, judges, and volunteers support the FIRST teams in 85 countries.