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As football season winds down, it is time once again for the start of a different sort of competition: robot season.

Teams from around the region recently came to UT’s College of Engineering as part of the international kickoff of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics’ 2016 season.

The competition brings together tens of thousands of students from around the world to design and build robots from identical kits provided by FIRST. Each kit contains a variety of parts, which the teams must decide how best to use within the context of a set game.

“One of the amazing things about FIRST is that everyone involved gets more out of it than they put into it,” said Dean Kamen, president of DEKA Research and Development and founder of the competition. “We get to be part of a group that is creating the future of the world.”

Kamen said the competition introduces students to opportunities and career possibilities while allowing teachers and mentors to see their students enjoy an energetic, hands-on approach to science.

All told, more than 75,000 students around the world will take part in this year’s competition—Stronghold—under the tutelage of 19,000 mentors and volunteers.

The goal of Stronghold involves a number of scenarios set around the taking of a castle, including reaching and breaching defenses, launching boulders through goals in the opposing tower, defending castles, and scaling towers. As a sign of how intricate the game is, the defense portion alone includes more than 18,000 possible configurations.

That level of complexity might seem overwhelming to a casual observer, but past teams have routinely demonstrated the ability to overcome such hurdles through ingenuity and working in alliances, a key component of FIRST competitions.

“While there are the individual team goals of constructing their own robots, the overarching idea is develop concepts of teamwork and cooperation,” said L.J. Robinson, regional director for USFIRST Robotics for Tennessee and Kentucky. That group runs the Smoky Mountain Regional competition, which draws more than fifty teams to Knoxville each spring.

“‘Gracious professionalism’ is a concept that FIRST stresses to teams in order to help bring along scientific discovery and achievement in all of our teams,” said Robinson.

In addition to U.S. teams, the competition also extends to Australia, Canada, China, the Dominican Republic, Israel, Mexico, and Turkey, making it a true international competition.

For UT, the opportunity to encourage and interact with such a wide variety of students makes sponsoring the local competition an easy choice.

“We take this opportunity to help foster young scientists as a very solemn responsibility,” said Masood Parang, associate dean for academic and student affairs in the college. “It’s important not only to them, but to us and to our world’s future workforce and research.”

For its efforts, UT was recently named a Bronze Level sponsor by FIRST, meaning it has pledged $20,000 in scholarships to support up to five student contestants each year for four years.


David Goddard (865-974-0683,