No instructions, no problem

Members of Tremont High School Roboteers (L-R) Matt Draear '13, lead mentor; Katee Murphy; Luke Vetroczky; Dilan Berchtold and Grace Johnson.

By Abby Rhodes
January 9, 2012

Thirteen teams of high school students from Illinois and Iowa came to Bradley University Jan. 7 to receive boxes filled with motors, batteries, a control system, a PC, a mix of automation components and three basketballs. The charge: to build a robot capable of shooting basketballs – and making baskets – while balanced on a teetering bridge. What the teams didn’t receive in their kits were instructions.

“That’s the exciting part,” said Matt Draear, a Bradley engineering student and the lead mentor for Tremont High School’s team, the Roboteers. “Whatever your imagination can design, you can test out, and maybe it will work.”

The Jan. 7 event, sponsored by Caterpillar Inc., was a kickoff to the annual FIRST Robotics Competition, an international challenge in which teams get six weeks to turn their kits into working robots designed to compete in a game-style challenge. This year’s game, called “The Rebound Rumble,” is played by two competing alliances, which will require teams to coordinate their efforts on game day. After the six-week design and building period, the teams compete at regional events, with winners moving on to the championship event April 25 through 28 in St. Louis.

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FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is an organization founded by Segway PT inventor Dean Kamen, who addressed students at the kickoff via NASA TV. FIRST is dedicated to motivating the next generation to understand, use and enjoy science and technology. The robotic competitions offer students a fun, productive and team-oriented outlet for their innovative design ideas and growing engineering skills.

After high school, many of them will attend Bradley, following in the footsteps of Draear ’13, a FIRST Robotic Competition alumnus who found that classes in the College of Engineering and Technology allow him to work on similar projects while gaining an in-depth knowledge of engineering principles. 

“Now I’m able to help the students apply what I’m learning in class, which gives them an idea of what they’ll learn if they pursue an engineering program in college,” Draear said. “I tell the students they should choose a school where they think they’ll fit best, and this year multiple students have already selected Bradley.”

Tim Koch ’79, in his fifth year as the Roboteers’ Caterpillar Mentor, is a professional engineer who provides guidance throughout the planning and design process. Koch has seen many of the team’s graduates move on to Bradley, including his son, Stephen, a student in the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering and Technology.

“This competition teaches students what being an engineer really means, and Bradley can follow up on that by giving students the tools to pursue their passion professionally,” Koch said. “This competition and similar exercises in Bradley’s programs mimic real-world problems, where you never have enough time, enough resources or enough money.”

FIRST also sponsors scholarships for Bradley students pursing careers in engineering. One recipient is Amanda Ranftl ’13, a mechanical engineering student who participated in the robotics competition as a high school student and, like Draear, has remained connected to her alma mater’s team as a mentor. For Ranftl, the FIRST competition was a direct bridge between an interest in science and technology to Bradley’s mechanical engineering program.

“If this is the kind of thing you like to do, if you enjoy the skills that FIRST develops, then you’ll love the hands-on applications and opportunities at Bradley,” Ranftl said.