ALACHUA ‒ The Swamp Bots of Alachua are working to make science more appealing to students. Composed of students from several Alachua County high schools, they recently held one of several upcoming exhibitions to engage kids in kindergarten through high school in exciting, mentor-based, research and robotics programs and is open to all skill levels. The goal is to help them become science and technology leaders, as well as well-rounded contributors to society. The initial exhibition by the Swamp Bots took place at the City of Alachua’s Hal Brady Recreation Center on Sept. 3. Kids faced a course laid out on a plywood board and were given Legos to build robots they could program to navigate the course
The Swamp Bots are part of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which is an organization founded to build student interest in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These fields will play an important part in the jobs of the future. There are groups of FIRST members throughout the world with over 90,000 members.
The organization was founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen, who is best known for inventing the Segway PT, an electric, self-balancing human transporter with a computer-controlled gyroscopic stabilization and control system. Kamen was already a successful inventor when he produced the Segway.
Kamen created FIRST to foster the love of science in a younger generation. His vision was "To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders”. But FIRST is more than robots. The Robots are a vehicle for students to learn important life skills. “Kids often come in not knowing what to expect from the program or themselves,” said Kamen. “They leave with a vision, with confidence, and a sense they can create their own future.”
There are several levels to the FIRST program based on age. FIRST LEGO League introduces children ages 4-16 o science through fun, exciting hands-on learning. The participants gain real-world problem-solving experiences through a guided, global robotics program using Legos to build robots that can be programmed to complete a course.
FIRST Tech Challenge teams (up to 15 team members, grades 7-12) are challenged to design, build, program, and operate robots to compete in a head-to-head challenge in an alliance format. Guided by adult coaches and mentors, the students develop STEM skills and practice engineering principles, while also realizing the value of hard work, innovation, and working as a team. The robot kit they build is reusable from year to year and can be coded using different levels of Java-based programming.
Teams design the robots, raise funds to build it, design and market their team brand, and do community outreach to earn specific awards. Participants are eligible to apply for part of $80 million in college scholarships. Each season concludes with regional championship events
For high school students and their mentors, there is the First Robotics Competition. Under strict rules and limited time and resources, the teams of high school students are challenged to build industrial-size robots to play a difficult field game in alliance with other teams, while also fundraising to meet their goals, designing a team “brand,” and gives the teams an opportunity to work and create together.
“The competition is more than building robots and competing,” said Ben Sanders, mentor of the Alachua Swamp Bots group. “They also have to explain to the judges how they built it to show the analytical thought process. While the core value is problem solving, they also have to show the judges that they worked as a team with input from everyone. The judges want to see that they thought it out before acting,” Sanders said.
“In the competition, cooperation is important, not just within a team but against competitors as well,” said Sanders. “If a team or person is rude or arrogant to others or doesn't work as a team, the judges will scratch them from the event. While it is meant to be a fun challenge, it is also meant to teach social skills, cooperation and be a contributing member in society,” Sanders said.
The Swamp Bots group started in Sanders’ living room in 2012 and his son is one of the members. Sanders, a mechanical engineer, works in Progress Park and considers the Swamp Bots as his weekend hobby with his kids. But the Swamp Bots don't just compete, they also demonstrate the excitement of designing and creating, working together and gaining confidence in abilities to younger students. That's the group is holding free exhibits where any student between four and 18 can attend, build and program a Lego robot to work through the outlined course.
The Alachua Swamp Bots received a grant from the Children's Trust of Alachua to help start groups of middle school students. So far, they have helped initiate groups in High Springs, Alachua and Turkey Creek, all mentored by an adult. Another group is currently forming in Waldo.
“We want to make science exciting and show kids the achievements they can make both as individuals and as a team and help shape their future,” Sanders said.
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