How Robotics Competitions are Changing STEM Education

April 15, 2016 by Katrina Barhouse

Robotics competitions encourage students to work with industry professionals to learn, work together, and solve today's global challenges - before they even graduate high school.

Robotics competitions encourage students to work with industry professionals to learn, work together, and solve today's global challenges - before they even graduate high school.

I’d like to meet the very first person that started the very first robotics competition for young students and thank them for starting this powerful movement! Robotics competitions are a brilliantly creative way of encouraging students of all ages to work together, think intellectually, and be innovative. Robotics competitions provide students with powerful tools to help them succeed in their future careers. I’ve seen students firsthand develop tools such as having confidence in their own abilities and creating ownership over their own learning and education through the real world challenges and the collaborative environments that these robotics competitions provide.

There seems to be an unquantifiable number of robotics competitions and organizations popping up for students to pursue these days. Do you want your robot to swim underwater? There’s a competition for that. Do you want your robot to scale a castle wall? There’s a competition for that. Do you want your robot to be launched into our atmosphere?  How about driving on the moon? There’s a competition for that!  

I have discovered a marvelous and poorly kept little secret, being well past the K-12 age myself and still wishing that I could participate in some of these robotics competitions. The secret? Most of these organizations and competitions are lacking in volunteers to mentor students, judge competitions, or assist with events. So much so that often there is a greater student interest in robotics than there are adults to supervise, organize, and mentor. Think that you also missed your calling in participating in competitions such as this as a kid? Try becoming a mentor, instead! Start by checking out some of these national competitions for K-12 students.


Robotics competitions usually focus on a new task each year. Image courtesy of FIRST.

FIRST Robotics Competition

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) may very well be one of the most well-known international youth robotics organizations, with programs for elementary through high school aged students. The high school aged program, FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition), attracts enough enthusiasm from spectators at regional competitions to rival any athletic competition. 

An FRC match consists of two alliances competing against each other. Each alliance consists of three teams. This year’s challenge, FIRST Stronghold, presented the teams with a castle on each side of the field protected by a castle wall composed of changing obstacles selected by the audience. Robot Alliance strategies usually involved breaching the opposing castle wall, firing boulders at the castle tower and attempting to climb the castle tower in the end. Yes, that's right. Robots climbed a castle tower! 

The matches themselves are hardly the most intense part of the competition for these high school students. The intensity starts off with a bang after the yearly kick-off and announcement of the season's new challenge. Teams then have a short 6 week build season to design, fabricate, build, program, and test their robots. Any other engineer in the industry can especially appreciate how fast of a timeline this really is. With robots weighing up to 120lbs and teams frequently including upwards of 50 students, collaboration, dedication, and what FIRST calls Gracious Professionalism become the true objectives that the teams need to embody to be successful in the competition. 

If you have not seen FRC robots compete before, I highly suggest checking out one of your local regional competitions! This year's FRC Championship is coming up on April 27-30 in St. Louis. If you live in the area, make sure to stop and visit or volunteer

MATE Underwater Robotics Competition

The MATE (Marine Advanced Technology Education) Underwater Robotics Competition is a competition for K-12 students aimed at using underwater robots to teach students about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) with challenges from marine industries. MATE encourages their student teams to embody an entrepreneurial mindset and view their team as a company, with the objective of manufacturing, marketing, and selling their product (robot). To achieve this, students must prepare technical reports, presentations, and marketing materials to present to industry professionals, who serve as judges in the competition.

This year's international competition is set to take place on June 23-25 at the Johnson Space Center's Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston, TX. This year's mission presents each company with the challenges of underwater exploration both on Earth and on Jupiter's Europa Moon. Each team or company is responsible for product demonstrations in the areas of Outer Space: Mission to Europa, Inner Space: Mission Critical Equipment Recovery, Inner Space: Forensic Fingerprinting, Inner Space: Deep Water Coral Study and Inner Space: Rigs to Reefs. Companies must demonstrate all of these missions in the same demonstration, though they can choose to participate in one of four classes. Each of the four classes provides the student companies with varying size, depth, and mission criteria and include the Explorer Class, Ranger Class, Navigator Class, and Scout Class.


Two Students make adjustments to their to their underwater robot at the MATE Underwater Robotics Competition. Courtesy of MATE


MATE presents the competition information as mission briefings, technical specification documents, and includes references to NASA research on Europa and previous missions. This competition gives these young engineers and scientists a realistic experience of the life of a Marine, Robotics, or Space Exploration STEM professional. With regional competitions all around the country, there's sure to be one in your area. Check out your nearest MATE Underwater Robotics Competition and cheer on your local students! 

NASA Student Rocket Launch Robotics Challenge

NASA's Student Rocket Launch and Robotics Challenge  hosts over 50 high school, college, and university teams from over 22 states at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. The 16th annual competition is being held on April 13-16 this year. The competition consists of a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) Challenge, Astronaut Presentation, Rocket Fair, and Student Launch Competition. In the MAV Challenge, students are tasked with building an autonomous robot capable of retrieving and storing samples for a chance at a $50,000 cash prize. Students get the opportunity to meet and interact with a current NASA Astronaut and present their rocket designs in the Rocket fair. 


Student Rocket Launch at NASA's Student Launch Competition


The last day of the competition brings the Student Launch Competition, where the student build rockets must fly to an altitude of one mile, deploy an automated parachute, and land safely. The teams have a chance to win the cash prize of $5,000 if they achieve this. Not only having the incentive of winning sizable cash prizes, the students also have the satisfaction and opportunity to visit and compete at a NASA facility and meet NASA personnel.

The Mars Ascent Vehicle Challenge and Student Launch Competition are open to the public, so if you live in Houston, stop by to cheer them on! 

  • Alex Sneed Miller April 15, 2016

    Dean Kamen is the one who invented FIRST:

    He also invented the Segway, portable dialysis pump, a water purification system for 3rd world counties, those Coke Freestyle machines, and many others:

    Like. Reply
    • K
      kbarhouse April 20, 2016
      Yes, thank you Alex. I have not had the pleasure of meeting Dean Kaman but I am certainly familiar with him as a FIRST volunteer! :)
      Like. Reply
  • A
    Alex Udanis April 16, 2016

    I think you forgot a few major competitions. 

    Vex Robotics is the world’s large robotics competition for high school and middle school students.

    National Robotics League has 1000’s of students and 100’s of teams across 14 regional events and a national event

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