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New robotics competition season gets underway in Pahrump

Several youth from Pahrump and other areas in Southern Nevada met for the first meet-play event of the 2018 season of the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Tech Challenge program—where children, ages 12-18, learn how to design, build and program robots, among other things. The program also includes a competition between teams across Nevada, which could lead to local youth entering a world championship.

About eight teams attended the first meet-play for the 2018 season for the statewide FIRST Tech Challenge program at the NyE Communities Coalition building at 1020 E. Wilson Road. Dozens of youth from Pahrump and across Southern Nevada came out on Nov. 3 to meet with regional team members and practice with their robots, for those who’d already completed a working model.

“This event here today is the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) program, so that’s everything from seventh grade, all the way through 12th grade, and the kids are doing a meet where they’re able to practice and get experience for the competition, which will happen later in the year,” said Angela Quick, regional director for FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Nevada, the group behind the statewide competition.

The organization promotes its FIRST Robotics programs and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) initiatives. Under the guise of that effort, there are four levels of building and robotics design that youth can get involved with, where some are dependent upon their age: FIRST LEGO League Jr., FIRST LEGO League, FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition.

The overall variety of programs is open to children ages six to 18; however, the tech challenge (FTC) is only open to those kids ages 12-18.

The FIRST program, in general, is not just statewide but is also active at a national and global level as well.

On the local level, Pahrump Valley High School has formed a team. The Pahrump Southern Nye County 4-H has two teams running: The Valkyries, made up of all girls, and Awkward Silence.

Quick said that it’s still early in the season, so not all the teams were up and running in the early November meet.

“At this point in time, since this is our first meet, it’s still a little on the early side of the season, so we have teams at all different levels,” she said.

“We have a mixture of new teams that are forming, and then they’re getting help from experienced teams,” she added. “Then, we have teams that are ready to go and that are still kind of tweaking things a bit with their robot, so it’s a wide range.”

Quick said she was excited about the turnout in Pahrump, as many of the teams in the area are from the Las Vegas area.

Some local youth are attracted to the competition for various reasons.

Elise Wilkinson of the Valkyries team said she’s always thought that programming and fundraising was “fun,” and she was looking to gain more experience with both those activities by joining the team.

Wilkinson was also part of Awkward Silence, the inaugural Pahrump team for the local 4-H in the 2017-2018 season. The Valkyries team was added this season.

Kaylee Osborne of the Valkyries team was also part of Awkward Silence in the first year of its presence in Pahrump.

Osborne said she joined the FTC team initially “because I’ve always loved engineering and robotics ever since I was little, and I wanted more practice in that area, and I thought it’d be fun, and it was,” she said.

Wilkinson said her learning has been extended this year over last when she used what was called “blocks” to help program their robot for competition for the Awkward Silence team.

This year, Wilkinson said the Valkyries are using Java this year to help program their robot.

The tools learned in the building of robots can extend and benefit kids in the classroom.

“I’ve been learning the metric system in my school, and our robot kit this year is actually part of the metric system, so it’s definitely helping me a lot more in that area,” Osborne said.

Some competitors transitioned this year to FTC.

Nathaniel Heckler of the Neocratic Nerds FTC team said he joined the robotics-oriented programs in the seventh grade when he joined the FIRST Lego League program. Heckler joined the FTC program this year.

There are some differences between the two programs.

“The transition from that, like working with simple Legos and like connectors and stuff, you actually have to work with metal,” Heckler explained.

In FTC, children have to cut, break and bend metal, Heckler said.

“It’s a lot different than it is working with Legos,” he said.

Justice Febella-Potes of the Black Knights team explained that the meet-play is where teams come together to meet each other.

The teams can also learn from each other as well.

Febella-Potes said they are able “to see where they’re at, compared to where we’re at, and ask for help if they have something that we don’t have. We can also use this time to see how our robot compares to others and if we need to improve upon our robot.”

Teams are also forming in Northern Nevada, but their meet-plays are done in that region throughout the season. Then, the statewide competition in February will bring all the teams together for the annual competition, which will be held in Las Vegas this year, Quick said.

The statewide competition rotates between north and south each year, so the 2019-2020 season’s Nevada competition will be in the northern half of the state, according to Quick.

Teams are still forming, but Quick said, during the Nov. 3 meet-play, that there were about 25 to 30 teams that have formed this season.

All the FIRST programs did get a boost this season.

“For each season, it varies, but we have a great investment from the Tesla Gigafactory, so they’re supporting new-team growth for FIRST programs, in particular,” Quick said. “We had a bigger influx with the teams, so we have hundreds of teams throughout all four programs statewide.”

Contact reporter Jeffrey Meehan at jmeehan@pvtimes.com

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