Robots and Their Creators Head to Ole Miss for Weekend Battle

Record group of high school teams set for statewide robotics tournament

FIRST Tech Challenge Kickoff. Teams from all over Mississippi came to see this years challenge course and get the rules and specs for this year.

OXFORD, Miss. – After emerging victorious at qualifying matches throughout Mississippi, 21 teams of high school robot designers travel to the University of Mississippi this weekend for the FIRST Tech Challenge Robotics Tournament hosted by the UM Center for Mathematics and Science Education.

The event begins with inspections and opening ceremonies at 8:30 a.m. Saturday (Feb. 8) at the university’s Jackson Avenue Center, 1111 Jackson Ave. Competitions begin at 10:30 a.m. This is only the second statewide robotics tournament hosted in Mississippi.

Part of the UM School of Education, the Center for Mathematics and Science Education, or CMSE, has spearheaded the creation and expansion of middle and high school robotics programs since 2012. The goal is to foster an interest in STEM fields among students. The number of Mississippi schools supporting robotics teams has expanded rapidly from only four in 2012 to 21 in 2013 and to 43 this year.

“Our goal is to help implement a robotics team in every school district in the state,” said CMSE project manager Mannie Lowe, who has spent the last two years recruiting and training 39 of the state’s 43 robotics teams. “Robotics opens up opportunities that may have not been available for students in the past. Students work as a team, learn programming skills and apply math and science concepts toward something that interests them.”

This year’s challenge is called FTC Block Party, where participants maneuver their custom robots on a 12-by-12-foot course featuring a bridge, pendulums equipped with baskets and a flagpole. Students can fill the baskets with blocks to earn points and attempt to balance the pendulum and raise their team flag for extra points.

Winning teams go on to compete in the South Super Regional Championship Feb. 26-28 in San Antonio, Texas.

“This program was perfect for my students because the process has close ties to Common Core,” said Silas Reed, a science and mathematics teacher at Coffeeville High School who also is a trained agricultural engineer. “A lot of our students have gained so much from this experience. Many of them didn’t know what an Allen wrench was last year. Now they are having intelligent conversations not just with me, but with each other about the robot’s components and how we can improve the design and our strategy.”

At Coffeeville, robotics is in its first year. Reed implemented the design, construction and practice for competition into lesson plans for students participating in the robotics club. Their simple, bulldozer-styled robot is called the Kraken and their team is dubbed Pirate Nation.

With 11 students – none of whom are seniors – competing Saturday, Reed hopes to continue the club into next year.

Students participating in the FIRST Tech Challenge, or FTC, robotics program qualify to apply for more than 800 special scholarships totaling more than $16 million at some 160 colleges and universities, including the UM School of Engineering, which offers three such scholarships. Students participating in robotics are 50 percent more likely to attend college and twice as likely to major in a STEM field, according to FTC data.

FTC teams typically consist of up to 10 ninth- through 12th-graders and up to three faculty mentors. After registering online and making a startup payment of $275, the team receives a CMSE grant to get a kit with basic robotics parts, including 11 motors, nine sensors, two controllers, a WiFi communications device and a LEGO MINDSTORM NXT Intelligent Brick, commonly called the robot’s “brain.”

Throughout the year, Lowe travels across the state to visit and advise students and mentors on their robot designs and encourage competition at smaller qualifying matches in the fall.

“I’ve been contacted by schools all across the state in the last year saying, ‘Can you help us? We’re interested in robotics,'” Lowe said. “That’s what we’re here for. We’re here to support those who want to get involved and help open this opportunity for students.”

The FTC tournament is supported by the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, organization in Manchester, N.H. Founded by inventor Dean Kamen, the nonprofit’s mission is to inspire an interest in mathematics and science in young people.

For more information about the tournament and the organization, visit


About Andrew Mark Abernathy