Love of Robots Brings Opportunity to UNI

The classroom was littered with broken robot parts, the whiteboards full of arcane, mathematical scribbles. Tools were everywhere.

University of Northern Iowa freshman Madison Johnson took in the scene and had only one thought: “I need to be part of this right now.”

That was during her freshman year of high school in Denver, Iowa, and it was the beginning of her involvement with FIRST Robotics, an international organization where student teams design and build industrial-sized robots to compete in challenging field games.

“Think BattleBots, but less aggressive,” Johnson said.  “We don’t want to destroy the other robots, just get more points than the other team.”

After joining her high school FIRST team, Johnson quickly realized that a skill lacking in most robotic engineers – talking in front of groups of people – was one where she excelled.

“I didn’t build the robots; I talked about them and explained what they did,” Johnson said.

Just like that, a career path emerged. Johnson brought together her love for robotics and her role as the spokeswoman for her team and decided to pursue a communications major.

But first, she had to choose a college, and UNI was the perfect fit – it was close enough to home to make the transition to college life simple. It didn’t, however, have a FIRST robotics club, which end after high school.

Where some might see a downfall, Johnson saw an opportunity. So, with two other friends she made during her years in FIRST, Johnson planned to start a FIRST alumni club at UNI to allow former participants in the program to help support robotics teams and host events.

“Alumni coming from FIRST – they miss it. I missed it the second I left the last competition,” Johnson said.  “They want to go back and give back to FIRST. We’re trying to show FIRST that this is an undervalued opportunity. We’re trying to help the robotics community and create this new process.”

While it would be the first such group at UNI, Johnson’s idea is starting to become more common at other universities, said Kenton Swartley, who has been a FIRST coach at Cedar Falls High School for 20 years and helped bring the only FIRST competition in the state to UNI.

“My guess is there are about 30 people on that campus that would have some background in robotics, and I think that number will grow,” Swartley, now the Community Partner/STEM Facilitator for Cedar Falls Community Schools, said. “I’d be excited to see (Johnson’s idea) happen. It would be a great thing.”

Swartley is no stranger to FIRST Robotics. He was invited to China to help establish teams there, and he serves on the State Operating Committee for FIRST in Iowa. He said a student organization like Johnson is proposing would help former FIRST participants from outside the area get involved and connected with volunteer opportunities.

It’s an ambitious idea, and Johnson said it would likely take four to five years for the program to become what she and her friends envision. However, they already have a charter, which they’re waiting to submit to UNI’s student government.

In the meantime, Johnson has settled into college life, finding a job at the UNI Bookstore and exploring the campus and the community.

“I love UNI,” Johnson said. “Everybody says this, but it’s absolutely true: It’s the perfect size. It’s not too big or too small. The community is inviting, and I’m really glad I’m going to be a Panther.”

Johnson started her job at the beginning of summer and quickly found a group of friends there.  What’s more, she discovered the welcoming atmosphere doesn’t end at the bookstore.

“UNI is a safe campus, and there are friendly faces everywhere,” Johnson said. “You can be comfortable and be yourself without fear, and that leads to a lot of amazing things.”

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