Greater Victoria students honoured in U.S. for robotics

A team of Greater Victoria high school students has jousted with iron giants and come away with top marks, after a global robotics competition in Texas last week.

The team, called 3491-FIX IT, comprised of students Guy Stoppi and Alec Krawciw of Mount Douglas Secondary, Helen Leslie from Victoria High, Aila Simpson from the Pacific School of Inquiry and Innovation and Benjamin Dam, a home-schooled student, won the First Tech Challenge competition’s Inspire Award, the highest honour available to recognize excellence in robot design and teamwork.

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Simpson was singled out for a Dean’s List Award at the First Tech Challenge robotics contest, the first time a Canadian student has been selected.

“It was fantastic, amazing, phenomenal,” said team coach Christine Nicholls. “From our point of view, we are a small team in a small region and to come out ahead of the big teams with big corporate money behind them is amazing.”

Nicholls said there were about 7,000 teams vying to land one of 128 spots at the tournament in Houston. The Victoria team was one of only three from Canada at the competition.

“All of the credit goes to the students,” she said, noting they were over the moon when they won. “They were absolutely stunned.”

And they all now have a taste of creating, designing and engineering a machine, which is the idea behind the First program and competition.

First is a not-for-profit organization designed to inspire young people to look at a future in science and high-tech.

The First Tech Challenge, which challenges teams to design, build, program and operate robots to compete in a head-to-head challenge, brought together 1,200 international students to pit their engineering and design skills against each other.

“First is all about getting kids interested in careers in science and technology,” said Nicholls. She noted First has had success on that front with its studies showing one in every three young women who take part go on to engineering studies, and most of the students involved go on to university.

Eric Jordan, chief executive of gaming company Codename Entertainment and one of the team’s sponsors, said this kind of competition can only bode well for the tech sector. “Robots are cool. They are a great way to get high school students excited about careers in tech,” Jordan said. “The industry currently forecasts that by 2021 there will be an unmet job demand of 30,500 and this program is one of the ways in which we will address this unmet need.”

Nicholls said the Inspire Award came down to the team’s overall excellence as it placed highly in all judged categories ranging from aesthetics, innovative design, engineering through to community outreach. But the robot, called Fermion, also had to perform. “At the start of every match the robot has to fit inside an 18”x18”x18” box and once the match starts it can open out,” she said, noting it then has to pick up a series of balls on a course, shoot them, and pick up a large yoga ball and balance it on a metre-high stand.

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