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Teams gather around the newly revealed challenge to ask questions and begin planning their designs for the FIRST Tech Challenge. (Kellie Plumhof / The Signpost)

Crowds gathered at the Weber State University Davis campus early on Sept. 10 to watch the global premiere of the FIRST Tech Challenge game reveal.

For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, an inventor and STEM advocate.

FIRST hosts a variety of robotic leagues and competitions, divided by age range, in order to allow children to explore robotics and compete amongst their peers, locally and nationally.

Dana Dellinger, director of the center for technology outreach at WSU and Utah FIRST Tech Challenge partner, hosted the kick-off. Dellinger announced that the WSU College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology was the newest sponsor of FIRST Tech Challenge.

“Today, they will find out what the new competition is for the 2016-17 year,” Dellinger said. “They have to take their robots and completely redesign them for the new game.”

The new challenge course for the year is called Velocity Vortex. The competition itself will consist of a 30-second-long autonomous period where the robot must be pre-programmed to navigate the course and score points.

The last two minutes of the game will allow two drivers from the team to control the robot in order to score more points. Points will be scored using light beacons on the side of the area, small balls called particles and one large ball called a cap ball.

In order to qualify for the state championship this year, teams will have to compete in one of three separate qualifying tournaments held throughout Utah, a change from last year’s competition.

“We have 58 potential teams,” Dellinger said. “That is a big increase from the 39 teams we had last year.”

On the national level, Dellinger said 5100 teams from over 80 different countries participated in last year’s competition.

Shaina Emmett, a sophomore at WSU, helped the Center for Technology Outreach by being at the event and working as a consultant for the potential teams in order to help them plan and strategize for the upcoming year.

In addition to teams from years past, there were newcomers to the FIRST Tech Challenge as well, including Tiffany Swenson, a teacher for the online school Mountain Heights Academy.

Swenson was there with her son to explore the potential of creating a team to compete. Swenson is also in charge of a STEM club at Mountain Heights Academy.

“[FIRST] gives kids the experience of working as a team and working with robotics,” Swenson said.

Between now and the fist qualifying tournament, which will be held on Dec. 3, two scrimmages will be hosted, one in October and one in November, in order to give the teams a chance to practice.

Michelle Estrada, a coach for one of the teams from South Jordan, said that this is the next step up for her kids who are now aged out of the FIRST Lego League, which is for elementary school children.

Estrada said they first became involved when her daughter saw a robotics exhibition at a state fair. From there, Estrada went on to coach a team for six years.

Estrada said that as a child she was terrified of technology and has been determined to not allow that to happen to her kids.

“I believe FIRST gives confidence to women and shows them that they can do anything,” Estrada said.

Estrada said early exposure to robotics is key for children. Estrada recognized that it can be hard for schools to take on extra projects like a team and that she is happy to be able to do it in her own home.

“I believe that any profession a person goes into is going to be involved in technology,” Estrada said. “And if you have confidence that you can learn it and figure it out, then you’re already ahead of the game.”

Teams can still sign-up to participate in the 2016-17 FIRST Tech Challenge. More information about FIRST, as well as sign-ups, can be found online.

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