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World's largest robotics competition comes to St. Louis for final year

World's largest robotics competition comes to St. Louis for final year

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ST. LOUIS • The world’s largest and most prestigious robotics championship returned to St. Louis this week for the final year of a seven-year run.

About 15,000 youths in kindergarten through high school from 33 countries gathered at America’s Center and Union Station on Wednesday for the annual FIRST robotics championship.

Students had to design, build and program their own robot in a matter of weeks to compete in certain challenges. For example, the robots in the high school division have to shoot lightweight balls into a tall tower, hang gears on hooks and climb a rope in an arena while fending off potential blocks from rival robots.

The championship, which was also held in Houston earlier this month, is the flagship event of the international nonprofit FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

Engineer Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway Human Transporter, started FIRST in 1989 to get children excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics the way they are about sports like football and basketball.

“Right now, we celebrate athletes, singers and movie actors and actresses, but our culture really doesn’t celebrate the great minds,” said Mitch Comer, robotics coach for Camdenton (Mo.) High School’s LASER 3284 team, which is competing this week. “What we’re really trying to do is foster a culture where we celebrate great minds.”

Robotics has steeply gained in popularity since the founding of FIRST. More than 460,000 young people on more than 52,000 teams worldwide participated in FIRST this school year.

The program boasts impressive outcomes for students.

A study released this month by Brandeis University researchers found that FIRST participants, regardless of characteristics such as family income and area of residence, are more than twice as likely to show continued interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

A 2015 FIRST survey found that more than 75 percent of alumni surveyed are either studying or working in a STEM field.

Students not only learn how to design, code and build robots, but how to run their own business and conduct themselves as professionals.

FIRST emphasizes soft skills such as public speaking and teamwork.

FIRST awards students not just for winning robot matches, but for practicing safety and doing community outreach. Students are expected to find their own sponsors, raise their own money, volunteer in the community, help other schools cultivate teams and present their work to officials in the private and public sectors.

Next year, the competition will leave St. Louis after a seven-year run for Detroit and Houston. This week is the last chance for St. Louisans to witness the competition, which is free and open to the public, in their city.

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Kristen Taketa is the K-12 education reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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