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Revving Up Interest in Robot Competitions

July 24, 2020
It should be easy to pique student interest in robot competitions, but that’s not been the case. And in today’s COVID-inflicted environment, it only gets tougher.

I periodically write about science fairs and robot competitions because they’re interesting and I help run the Mercer Science and Engineering Fair. It’s been around for over 60 years, but every year is a challenge to get students to participate.

If you think that the relatively new emphasis on STEM education has improved things, then you would be mistaken. “Teaching to the test” doesn’t leave much room for anything but the test. If this wasn’t the case, then teachers would probably be knocking down our door to get their students into a competition. Good luck trying to find a link to a local science fair on your school’s website.

This isn’t the case for all schools. There are dedicated teachers who often have entire classes participating in a competition and even work this into their curriculum. However, that’s the exception rather than the rule. This becomes even more uncommon as one moves from the lower grades to high school.

As is the case with tradeshows, COVID-19 has had a major impact on competitions. Many were cancelled this year and even we had a tough time going virtual at the last minute. The International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) also went virtual this year, with major changes that included opening it to almost all comers. Regeneron took over the ISEF mantle from Intel this year.

Next year’s competition will likely be virtual as well, given the current trends. The pandemic has knocked schools and students around as badly as the consumer and industrial spaces. Many opportunities have disappeared even as new ones emerge.

The Mercer Science and Engineering Club Robot Competition is where I’ve been headed in this article. It’s the first time we’ve tried it, and it’s open to students throughout the United States versus our local area for the annual Mercer Science and Engineering Fair. We sent out email notifications to our local schools and even regional robotics competitions. Our competition is complementary with a focus on robot design rather than the head-to-head competitions espoused by outfits like FIRST Robotics.

Competitions such as NXP’s HoverGames 2 is more along the lines of our competition. This is the second year for that competition, which is still in progress. It zeroes in on system design rather than a head-to-head physical competition. Projects like those submitted for this competition could be entered in our competition.

As you may have guessed, the response to our competition has been lukewarm. I’m hoping you can spread the word. The competition is free to students versus many like FIRST Robotics, where the upper competition has annual fees on the order of $5000. That’s a lot of dough, even though the organization works to help teams that lack financial resources.

COVID-19 has really put a damper on education overall. It’s challenging enough for students to handle distance learning let alone examine an additional competition. On the flip side, working on and highlighting a project you’re really interested can be profoundly rewarding. The same is true for supporters and judges of these competitions.

So, if you can, get involved and let everyone know about these competitions. Most are continuing, usually in a virtual form, as COVID-19 mandates prevent many of the conventional competition modes of operation.

Here’s hoping for a successful season of science and engineering fair competitions.

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