Area students surround a “field” as their robots battle during a First Tech Challenge meet held at Glidden-Ralston High School Saturday.
Area students surround a “field” as their robots battle during a First Tech Challenge meet held at Glidden-Ralston High School Saturday.

November 22, 2016

Time stretches and no one breathes as the alliances wait for the buzzer to sound. Once it does, the people lining the field barely move as their mechanical envoys begin their mission. This first step is out of their hands.

Nothing, at first, and then, one of the four robots hugging the ground shifts — just the slightest movement, but it launches a “particle” toward the Center Vortex. A rustle moves through the audience as the particle hits its target, then falls.

Then, the robot lurches forward, knocking a “cap ball” from its position center stage. Another success.

The first 30 seconds complete, area high school students move on from the “autonomous” portion of the competition held Saturday at the Glidden-Ralston High School gym — during which the robots they designed, created and programmed for the First Tech Challenge acted without controls based on pre-programming — to the two-minute driver-controlled portion. Here, students use phones and video game-esque controls to drive their robots, trying to complete various tasks — launching balls toward the center platform, driving onto corner ramps, changing the colors of lights and more.

In this year’s First Tech Challenge, called “Velocity Vortex,” the Wiffle-like balls are “particles.” The larger “yoga balls” are “cap balls.” The platforms center stage are the “center vortex,” and the ramp on either end is the “corner vortex.” Color-changing lights situated around the field are “beacons.” No one deviates from these phrases.

First Tech Challenge provides an opportunity each year for students to build robots and program them to complete a variety of tasks, pitting them against each other — and allowing them to work together — in area meets, qualifying tournaments and eventually a state meet.

Students from Glidden-Ralston, IKM-Manning, Fort Dodge, Humboldt and Belmond gathered in Glidden Saturday for the second meet for area teams.

Tensions ran high at times, but it was cut by laughter, self-deprecating groans, stolen moments with pizza and — for a few students — quick naps on the gym floor.

Indeed, the concept of “gracious professionalism” is the core of the First Tech Challenge programs, urging students to work together, learn from each other and look past winning.

“Friendly competition and mutual gain are not separate goals,” said Julie Leonard, who coaches Glidden-Ralston’s FTC team along with volunteer Jim Wittry, an engineer. “What we discover is more important than what we win.”

FTC is an extracurricular opportunity at both Glidden-Ralston and IKM-Manning schools. IKM-Manning brought four teams — junior high and high school boys and girls teams. The middle school girls team placed fourth overall during the second meet, and the high school boys team placed fifth, said IKM-Manning FTC coach Jim Blankman.

While participating with FTC, students design, build, wire and program their robots, allowing them to learn a variety of science and engineering skills.

That can be a challenge, using a computer program and writing code with the eventual goal of making a robot pick up and throw a ball, Blankman said.

“There is no blueprint to build anything,” he said. “You just have to come up with ideas and try them and see how they work.”

During the meet, teams paired up into “alliances,” with four teams competing at once, each trying to gain the most points by having their robots complete various tasks in what sometimes looked like a high-tech version of bumper cars.

One of the largest challenges is using a robot to lift one of the cap balls — the larger “yoga balls” — and place or launch it atop the center platform. It’s worth the most points, and while many teams might focus on the more surefire tactics for gaining points, Blankman estimated that someone in the league would eventually accomplish the task.

Although Glidden-Ralston’s team didn’t score as well, points-wise, during this meet as its members had hoped, they have plenty of notes to take to the next meet, Leonard said. They’ll work on their programming and plan for a fresh start. After the third meet, there will be a league championship in Fort Dodge, a qualifying tournament and a state meet.

Saturday’s meet brought each team one step closer.

During a lull Saturday, one student whips out his phone and urges his peers to pose. They comply, provocatively.

Then, back to business.

Safety glasses jammed into place.

Robots lined up.

Particles situated.

Three … two … one.