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Release: Immediate

UI engineers team with Iowa City high school students to build battling robots

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Local high school students are teaming with University of Iowa engineers to become "gladiators of technology" as part of a nationwide robotics competition designed to stimulate interest in science and technology.

A team of 40 students from West, City and Regina high schools in Iowa City are participating in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, held April 22-24 at Disney World's Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla. About 300 high school teams who have corporate and academic sponsors compete in a spirited, no-holds-barred tournament complete with referees, cheerleaders and time clocks.

The budding Iowa City engineers are building a 4-foot-tall robot dubbed "Wrocky." The robot must complete tasks such as raising pillow-like" floppies" up to heights of 8 feet and moving a wooden puck on rollers across a 30-square-foot playing area. Points are awarded for several other moves, including positioning the robots on top of a puck.

Working with UI engineers, the students are getting a hands-on, inside look at the engineering profession. They work evenings and Saturdays in the UI Engineering Research Facility and are responsible for all phases of development, including publicity and fund raising.

"The students are learning how to work as a team in a technical setting. It's also an opportunity for students to know what it's like to be an entrepreneur ­ testing, marketing and funding a product in six weeks," said Jay Christensen-Szalanski, a professor of management and organizations in the UI College of Business Administration. He is working with the UI John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center on the FIRST project.

Sponsored by the UI College of Engineering and Rockwell Collins, the Iowa City team is also receiving assistance from the Iowa Space Grant Consortium, MCI WorldCom, CIVCO Medical Instruments in Kalona and the Adolescent and Pediatric Health Clinic in Iowa City. CADSI, located at the UI's Oakdale Research Park, and MSI Mold Builders of Cedar Rapids have offered technical assistance, while HON Industries in Muscatine provided materials.

The UI John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center coordinated recruitment of high school teams and matched sponsors with teams for Iowa's other FIRST programs in Ames, Cedar Falls, Des Moines and the Quad Cities. So far, the UI Center and the individual schools across the state have raised approximately $350,000 in staff and administrative support, supplies, travel and entry fees.

The John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Centers at the UI is supplying a $500 grant to fund each team's promotional efforts. The Iowa teams are also vying for a $1,000 grant awarded to the team with the best promotional package.

After paying a $4,000 entry fee, the Iowa City team began its efforts last fall when they received a kit of parts needed to construct a robot. They started building their entry Jan. 7 after receiving plans from the FIRST Kick-Off workshop. They have six weeks to design, construct and test their battle-ready robot, which must be shipped by Feb. 24, leaving time for regional competitions and setup at Epcot.

"There has been a lot of enthusiasm and energy from all of the participants. The feelings of accomplishment as you see the robot, fundraising, and trip come together, make it all worthwhile," said Elizabeth Wade, a 17-year-old senior at City High who is considering going into engineering.

"We are receiving great support from the UI in terms of funding, facilities and engineering expertise. The engineering support has been tremendous. The combining of schools (City High, West High, and Regina) has been valuable in allowing the students to work together to solve a problem," added Gary Garton, a science teacher at City High.

Chris Buckwalter, a chemistry teacher at West High, said the FIRST project has not only attracted hard-core science students, but students who are interested in auto mechanics and theater set construction.

"FIRST is an example of the practical meeting the theoretical," she said. "Kids who understand the textbook lessons get real-world experience, and kids with mechanical skills get a taste of the academic world."

"The surprising thing has been the number and types of ideas the students have had about designing the robot," said Jeff Freeman, a UI assistant professor of mechanical engineering who is leading the design process for the team.

So far, the Iowa City team has built a test robot consisting of a sheet of plywood with motors attached that can be driven around the test site at the UI, Freeman said.

Only two Iowa high schools competed last year, including a team from City High. With nine Iowa schools competing this year, Christensen-Szalanski is pleased with the increased interest, but he wants to see the program grow to include more Iowa teams.

"For students, FIRST helps develop skills needed by today's technological entrepreneurs," he said. "For Iowa corporations, the presence of Iowa teams in the national competitions shows that our state is a great environment for high-tech business and that our schools are training highly skilled workers."

The teams are still seeking corporate or individual sponsorships for travel to Orlando. For more information, contact Christensen-Szalanski at (319) 335-0951 or Buckwalter at (319) 339-6817. (See attached background sheet for more information and a complete list of participating school and sponsors.)

Background Information - U.S. FIRST Robotics Competition

John Pappajohn Entrepreneur Center at the University of Iowa


The U.S. FIRST Organization ( was started eight years ago to inspire high school students to excel in the science and technology areas. Corporations sponsor joint high school/corporate teams who design, build, and test eight-foot robots in just six weeks. These robots then compete at the National U.S. FIRST Robot Competitions in EPCOT. These competitions are broadcast on ESPN and have been featured in national publications like Fortune, as well as on all three major commercial television channels. Last year, there were more than 10,000 people at the national competition representing more than 230 high-tech and engineering firms.

The John Pappajohn Entrepreneur Center at the University of Iowa
For the past several months, the Center has been actively recruiting high schools to participate in the U.S. FIRST Robotics Competition, seeking students representative of Iowa's technological and manufacturing industrial base. The program is also intended to show that Iowa is a favorable environment for technologically oriented businesses and is training highly skilled employees to enter the workforce.

The Center has also coordinated recruitment of nine high school teams in Ames, Cedar Falls, Des Moines and the Quad Cities, up from two high schools last year. It has matched sponsors including large employers, universities, and several small technology-oriented companies with FIRST teams. These teams have raised or donated $350,000 in staff and administrative support, including funding for supplies, travel costs and entry fees.

The John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center at the UI awarded $500 grants for the teams' promotional efforts and will award a $1,000 grant to the team with the best promotional package.

Future Plans
Support is also being sought from additional businesses and community to increase the number of Iowa cities providing U.S. FIRST teams next year, with the intention of holding a regional competition in Iowa in the future.

Ames High School
Deere and Company
Iowa State University

Cedar Falls High School
Deere and Company
Doerfer Engineering
R.J. McElroy Trust Foundation
Team Technologies
Universal Industries
University of Northern Iowa

Des Moines Central Campus High School
Compression Controls Organization
Deere and Company
Townsend Engineering

Iowa City: City High School, Regina High School, West High School
University of Iowa College of Engineering
Rockwell Collins
MCI WorldCom
Iowa Space Grant Consortium
CIVCO Medical Instruments
MSI Mold Builders
HON Industries
United Technologies Automotive
Carousel Motors
Adolescent and Pediatric Health Clinic
Hills Bank and Trust
Proctor and Gamble
Nagle Lumber
Lands' End

Quad Cities: Davenport West High School, Moline High School, Sherrard High School
Deere and Company
Genesis Systems Group