Robots and rocketships at UNI

There was a different type of competition on the floor of the McCleod Center at the end of March.

Instead of long-limbed basketball players endeavoring to put a ball through a hoop 10 feet above the ground, there were robots with telescoping arms, bedecked with all manner of circuitry, drive chains, motors, polycarbonate panels and labyrinthine swirls of electrical cables, trying to put balls in containers shaped like rocketships.

These aluminum automatons streaked across the floor at speeds of almost 20 feet per second. They sometimes bashed into opposing robots, playing defense in a game to determine which team would advance to the national competition.

On the sidelines, these metallic gladiators were operated and cheered on by their creators – groups of high school students from across the Midwest and beyond who had gathered at the University of Northern Iowa to compete in the FIRST Robotics Competition Iowa Regional.

Forty-eight teams from nine different states had six weeks to design and build a robot that would compete in a game called Destination: Deep Space. The robots had 2-1/2 minutes to collect and deposit “cargo” (rubber balls, in this case) into either cargo containers arranged on the floor or rocketships that stretched more than six feet into the air. The winning “alliance” of three teams would advance to the FIRST Championship April 24-27 in Detroit.

There were close to 2,000 students involved. It was a weekend showcasing science, engineering, craftsmanship and creativity. 

And four years ago, it didn’t exist in the state of Iowa.

Back then, there were only a few FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) teams scattered around the state.

We could never go to an event in our state because one didn’t exist,” said Jan Newendorp, co-chair of the FRC Iowa Regional.

So, Newendorp, along with her husband, Bruce, and Kenton Swartley, an Iowa FRC pioneer and the coach of the Cedar Falls High School team 525, started working to bring a regional event to the state. With the help of former UNI professor Kavita Dhanwada, the group convinced the national FIRST organization to tour the UNI-Dome and McCleod Center.

"They saw the wonderful facilities we have, and they thought it would be perfect, like it was built for it,” said Marcy Seavey, UNI STEM coordinator.

The FRC Iowa regional was held in 2016. It consisted of teams mostly from Minnesota and Wisconsin. But in the years since, the program has flourished in Iowa, partly because of a coach’s development workshop UNI started taught by Swartley.

The course created a launchpad for FRC newcomers and a network for the coaches. There are now around 50 teams in Iowa, and the regional has attracted teams from around the world.

Part of that attraction is the UNI facilities, which offer an ideal set-up, with the tunnel connecting the UNI-Dome, where the student teams work on their robots, to the McCleod Center, where the competition is held.

“This is by far the nicest venue,” said Sayre Satterwhite, a student with the FRC team from Story County, Iowa. “I like it better than the world championships in Detroit.”

For the participating students, FRC offers not only a social and creative outlet, but an opportunity to develop skills for future careers.

“It’s a whole engineering experience,” said Stuti Arora, a junior with the FRC team from Maple Grove Senior High School in Minnesota. “You end up learning about every department, from electrical to pneumatics to programming. You learn to overcome challenges and work with a team, things that are absolutely essential for any job.”

This year, the winning alliance featured two teams from Iowa: Linn Mar High School in Cedar Rapids and Columbus High School in Waterloo.

UNI will award any student from the three teams a $500 scholarship if they attend the university.