Space-themed FIRST Robotics Competition blasting off at CFE Arena

Public invited to see students compete in two-day event

ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s game on this weekend at the University of Central Florida as the CFE Arena hosts the national FIRST Robotics Competition.

Each year, the event adds new levels of complexity to challenge ninth- through 12th-grade students.

This year's theme for the two-day event is Destination: Deep Space.

The students competing in the event have spent the last six weeks building a 120-pound robot for the competition, which is now in its 30th year.  

“It's very huge. It started out in a small high school in New Hampshire, and we've now grown globally,” Wendy Austin, the Orlando regional director of the FIRST Robotics Competition, said.

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Before the event, there is a lot of electrical work that must be done ahead of the opening ceremony, during which the 64 competing teams will be welcomed. Of those teams, 60 are from Florida and several are from the Central Florida area.

Neel Maity is a junior at Hagerty High School, which is just a few minutes away from the arena, and is quickly learning to navigate through the event.

"This is the practice field that's located in the pit area. While teams are working on making small adjustments to the robots, they can check to make sure it's not limiting them in any way,” Maity said.

Maity is part of team Exploding Bacon, which is made up of students from four Central Florida counties.

"We have people specialized in working on the mechanics of it. People that specialize on working on CAD, electrical. Wiring is a big thing," Maity said.

The object of the match is for each team to score points, according to volunteer field supervisor Jessie Maraman.

“The teams will be picking up the cargo from the loading station and delivering them either to the rockets or the cargo ship,” Maraman said.

The “cargo” is an orange ball, but before they get to that part, the teams first have to pick up a hatch panel and place it on the side of the rocket.

“The cargo pieces can only be scored once a hatch panel has been scored,” Maraman said.

It's a unique sport of the mind designed to help students discover the world of engineering and science.

"It improves their confidence. They learn how to machine things and how to solder and how to wire, but they also learn how to present. They learn how to write a business plan,” Austin said.

That style of learning works well for Solai Fulmore, a senior at Oak Ridge High School

"I'm more of a hands-on person and stuff, so for me to get exposed to all of this and everything, wanted me to go more into engineering," Fulmore said.

A study over 10 years from Brandeis University showed students who are part of this program are twice as likely to major in science or engineering, with 33 percent of them being women.

"Through the years, we have seen a growth: the girls. You can look around here. You see so many amazing females. My team that I mentor is at a 40 percent female," Maraman said.

Austin said it’s a unique way to see what the students are capable of and lets you know they've got the heart to make the world a better place. 

Organizers said the two-day event draws about 5,000 people and is open to the public.

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