March Madness isn’t just for basketball fans. Since 2001, high schools across Indiana have been building teams of budding mechanical and electrical engineers, programmers and business leaders to compete against each other in what has been called the “Super-Bowl of Smarts” with their own custom built 100+ pound multi-functional robot. The teams spend their first semester training after school in their various fields and raising funds for the second semester season which includes a 6-week build-off and competitions. Over 60 teams from Indiana attend as many as 3 district competitions with a chance of competing at the state and national level in Dean Kamen’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition.

Curtis Rozeboom, one of Marian’s employees, has been involved with the FRC team, 5010 Tiger Dynasty, at Fishers High School as a programming mentor for two years now. He was able to utilize Marian’s die cutting capabilities to water-jet cut a couple of high tolerance parts on this year’s competition robot, as well as a some parts for the training robot they built during the fall semester.

This year’s competition is called, SteamWorks, for its steam-punk thematic elements such as a boiler, large gears and “steam-driven-propeller” fantasy airships. The teams of each school are pitted against one another in two 3-way alliances, six schools at a time. For two and a half minutes. the robots deliver gears to the airships in order to rotate the propellers. They can also shoot whiffle balls of simulated fuel to a faux-boiler which are counted towards the simulated steam-power being supplied to the airship. During the first 15 seconds the robots operate according to a preset program, after which they operate under driver control. During the final 30 seconds, the robots can climb a rope to hitch a ride aboard their alliance’s airship. Each of these goals are counted towards the overall alliance score, and with each match, the teams who are able to contribute the most to their alliances rise to the top of the field. The competition lasts 2 days with a final elite-eight alliance match-off at the end. It’s not “battle-bots”, but there’s plenty of “rubbing-is-racing” kinds of action. Teams pack the competition gym dressed in spirit-wear with mascots helping cheer their robot on.

The team’s first competition was March 4-5, where the team was able to prove themselves enough to be selected as part of a finals alliance out of 30 other teams, despite some tough qualifying rounds. That’s stupendous and really shows that score isn’t the only factor. They will take the lessons learned from this match and make adjustments to the robot and their strategy. While Curtis and the other mentors have tried to help influence the students in the direction they think might be most helpful throughout the season, the students on this team have developed a strong sense of their own goals and how best to achieve them. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes not, which means we all learn from each other! The next match is March 24-25 at Perry Meridian. Visit http://www.indianafirst.org/2017-perry-meridian for more details.

Indiana is one of the leading states in FIRST and the robots can be among some of the best in the nation. FIRST also has programs that extend all the way down to age 6 using LEGOs as the building material. There are many scholarships exclusive to participants of FIRST programs at all levels. It’s a terrific way for kids to get the needed life experience they will need to succeed no matter where their lives take them.