Would you like to introduce your child to robotics and have them join a robotics team? Every year, thousands of students (K-12) participate in robotics teams and robotics competitions throughout the US. Being part of a team exposes children to coding, engineering, and real-world problem-solving challenges while providing the opportunity to build lasting friendships.
I am excited to share this post because I want to raise awareness for robotics opportunities and introduce you to five wonderful programs. If you have considered joining a robotics team but are unsure where to start, this article will help you understand the different types of programs offered around the country and how to find or start a team.
Here are 5 popular nationwide robotics programs:
All of these programs are well established and give students the chance to be part of a robotics team. When kids are young, teams are often organized by parents and held in homes. Students work on theme-based, hands-on projects. As kids get older, teams are often organized in schools and community centers and students have the opportunity to participate in robotics competitions.
The following is an overview of each program. Please visit each organization’s website to learn more and find a team in your area or start your own.
FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is the world’s leading child-serving nonprofit advancing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). FIRST programs inspire innovation and leadership through engaging, hands-on robotics challenges developed to ignite curiosity and passion in students in grades K-12.
FIRST provides a progression of four international, after-school programs for K-12: the FIRST ® LEGO® League Jr. for Grades K-4 (ages 6 to 10); the FIRST ® LEGO® League for Grades 4-8 (ages 9 to 16); the FIRST ® Tech Challenge for Grades 7-12 (ages 12 to 18); and the FIRST ® Robotics Competition for Grades 9-12 (ages 14 to 18). FIRST is truly a volunteer-driven organization. The growth and success of FIRST is a direct result of the efforts of the mentors, parents, teachers, community leaders, and citizens who volunteer their time and talent.
FIRST LEGO League Jr. for grades K-4 (ages 6 to 10) is designed to introduce younger children to the fun and excitement of solving problems with science and technology. FIRST LEGO League Jr. teams are given a Challenge based on a real-world theme, requiring them to build models and create a Show Me Poster depicting their research journey. Teams are encouraged to gather together to share their projects and experiences with family and friends or at a locally organized Expo. Teams receive the Inspire Set – a special LEGO Education kit that will be used by teams to inspire creativity within the Challenge theme – and the Engineering Notebook, which provides a structured experience for teams.
FIRST LEGO League for Grades 4-8 (ages 9 to 16) introduces children to the fun and experience of solving real-world problems by applying engineering, math, science, and technology. FIRST LEGO League is an international program for children created in a partnership between FIRST and the LEGO® Group in 1998. Each year, the program announces an annual Challenge to teams, which engages them in authentic scientific research and hands-on robotics design using LEGO MINDSTORMS technologies. After a minimum of eight weeks, the FIRST LEGO League season culminates at high-energy, sports-like tournaments.
FIRST Tech Challenge teams (10+ members, grades 7- 12) are challenged to design, build, program, and operate robots to play a floor game in an alliance format. Guided by adult coaches and mentors, students develop STEM skills and practice engineering principles (like keeping an engineering notebook) while realizing the value of hard work, innovation, and sharing ideas. The robot kit is reusable from year-to-year and can be programmed using a variety of languages. Teams also must raise funds, design, and market their team brand, and do community outreach for which they can win awards. Participants have access to tens of millions of dollars in college scholarships. Each season concludes with regional Championship Tournaments and an exciting, international FIRST Championship.
The FIRST Robotics Competition for Grades 9-12 (ages 14 to 18) is an annual competition that helps young people discover the rewards and excitement of education and careers in science, engineering, and technology. The program challenges high-school-aged students – working with professional Mentors – to design and build a robot, and compete in high-intensity events that reward the effectiveness of each robot, the power of team strategy and collaboration, and the determination of students. Each year’s Kickoff event unveils a new, exciting, and challenging game. From the Kickoff, teams have just six weeks to build and program a robot to compete in the game using a kit of parts provided by FIRST and a standard set of rules.
What Students Say
Rebecca Combs joined her high school robotics team, the Record Robotics (FRC #6731), to gain experience in STEM. She said, “I have never done any extracurriculars related to science before and thought that a robotics club would provide a wonderful introduction. It’s been a wonderful learning experience and I learned to work with other people, manage, collaborate and lead.”
- Learn more about FIRST: https://www.firstinspires.org/
- Find a local team: https://www.firstinspires.org/team-event-search
- Register a team: https://my.firstinspires.org/AccountManager/Account/Register
The Robotics Education & Competition Foundation’s (REC Foundation) vision is to change the world by inspiring young people in all communities to pursue degrees and careers in STEM fields by providing access to high-quality programs. The REC Foundation presents the VEX IQ Challenge Next Level and VEX Robotics Competition Turning Point to involve students in elementary school through college in hands-on robotics and STEM across the United States and around the world.
Getting involved in VEX Competitions is simple. Start by identifying the level of program that is right for you based on your grade level. The program is flexible for use in school or after school. Parents and community organizations or clubs (Scouts troops, Boys & Girls Clubs, and others) also organize and manage teams at both levels. The cost to participate varies by program, but in the first year, a team would need a robotics kit and team registration fees plus the cost to attend a competition locally.
VEX IQ Challenge Next Level brings elementary and middle school students together to compete in teamwork challenges with custom-built robots using VEX IQ. Teams compete as an alliance during a 60-second match, working collaboratively to score points. Together, they seek to attain the highest score by placing colored hubs in building zones, by removing hubs from the hanging structure, and by hanging robots at the end of the match.
VEX Robotics Competition Turning Point brings middle school, high school and college students together with guidance from their teachers and mentors to compete against each other with robots they designed, built and programmed using VEX EDR. Two alliances – one “red” and one “blue” are formed and consist of two teams each, where they compete in fifteen-second autonomous matches followed by one minute and forty-five seconds of driver-controlled play. The object of the game is to attain a higher score than the opposing alliance by high scoring or low scoring caps, toggling flags, and by alliance parking or center parking robots on the platforms.
The competition season culminates each spring at the VEX Robotics World Championship, where the best teams from across the United States and around the world gather to challenge their top-ranked peers to become World Champions.
What Students Say
Eleanor Honious, a past VEX Robotics Competition participant and current student at Rose-Hulman Institute, shares her experience with the program.
“VEX Robotics competitions inspired me to pursue STEM by establishing some of my first formal, hands-on engineering experience. With VEX I learned different designing techniques and approaches. I learned about mechanical mechanisms, how to solder and about gear ratios. I even learned how to keep a well-organized engineering notebook that was filled with design drawings, and math and physics equations for their implementations,” said Eleanor. “While I was learning all of these different things, I was having the time of my life and I was fortunate enough to realize at such a young age that this was the kind of work I wanted to pursue.”
- Learn more about VEX Competitions: RoboticsEducation.org
- To find a team, contact the regional support manager for the state in question
- Join and register a team: RobotEvents.com
Starting in 2004, World Robot Olympiad (WRO) was formed to encourage kids ages 6-26 to get involved in STEAM competitions. WRO tournaments are now found in more than 60 countries with over 62,000 students who actively participate. Every year the WRO holds an international final in November to bring together the top teams from around the globe.
The WRO has been in the United States for five years with regional competitions held in Illinois, North Carolina, West Virginia, Washington D.C., New York, Florida, California and now in Massachusetts. Kids as young as 6-years-old can participate using the LEGO® Education WeDo Robots and then move up to the LEGO® Education MINDSTORMS™ EV3 robots.
Participating teams need to design, build and program an autonomous robot that can complete a challenge, play soccer or demonstrate a solution for a real-life problem. All they need is one or two friends and a parent to start a team. Participation costs vary per team and may include membership, competition and equipment fees.
The Regular Category is a challenge-based competition for ages 6-19 years. Students must design, construct and program their robots to solve specific challenges on a field. Points are scored for completed tasks. The controller, motors, and sensors used to assemble robots must be from LEGO MINDSTORMS sets (NXT or EV3).
The Open Category is a project-based competition for ages 6-19 years. Students create their own intelligent robotics solution relating to the current theme of the season. Teams will present their project and their robot model to a group of judges on the competition day. The robot model must be controlled by a LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT or EV3 brick, but there no further restriction on the balance between LEGO and other elements.
WRO Football introduces a fun and exciting game with teams of two autonomous robots playing football (soccer). Every year little changes are introduced for the game to motivate students to keep challenging themselves.
What Students Say
Jack Wang, a 13-year-old from Winchester, MA is very excited about the WRO. He has done FLL in the past and wanted to try something different. Jack and his teammates were very interested in the WRO Soccer challenge. When asked why his team chose the Soccer category he said that his team wanted to do something challenging and soccer looked like it was going to be “hard but fun” and they all wanted a challenge for the summer. He was looking forward to designing, building, and programming both a forward soccer bot and a goalie bot.
- Find out more about WRO: www.wro-association.org
- Start a team: https://www.wro-usa.org/start-a-team
- Start a team in MA or CT: http://semiaoutreach.org/
The mission at RoboNation is to provide a pathway to hands-on educational experiences that empower students to find innovative solutions to global challenges. As students make the transition to industry, RoboNation provides career resources and tools to continue to support growth and professional development.
Robonation’s hands-on approach to STEM includes SeaPerch and SeaGlide kits. Students fuel their love for creating by participating in RoboNation competitions – a direct correlation between real-world skills, challenges, and workforce preparedness.
SeaPerch is a proven underwater robotics program that equips teachers and students with a kit full of all the resources they need to build an underwater robot. This program is for grades 2-12 and is implemented throughout schools as well as in after-school programs, camps, workshops and by parents.
Students build a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) from a kit comprised of low-cost, easily accessible parts, following a curriculum that teaches basic engineering and science concepts with a focus on marine engineering. The SeaPerch Program provides students with the opportunity to learn about robotics, engineering, science, and mathematics while building an underwater ROV as part of a science and engineering technology curriculum. Throughout the project, students will learn engineering concepts, problem-solving, teamwork, and technical applications. Get started with SeaPerch for $179.
Driven by competition? Put your SeaPerch to the test and form a SeaPerch Qualifying Competition. Teams of 3 to 4 students from all over the world are challenged with an obstacle course and a special challenge course. To ensure maneuverability as well as control and speed, students need to focus on certain construction elements when building their vehicle. The winning teams then advance to the International SeaPerch Challenge, where their SeaPerches take to the water amongst the best of the best.
SeaGlide is another underwater robotics program that was designed for high school students to build a miniature underwater glider. This program provides a platform that teaches students the basics of autonomy.
SeaGlide kit builders first learn about basic electronics and then progress to circuit board soldering and programming with Arduino Pro Mini microcontrollers. They build servo-driven buoyancy engines with large, 100cc syringes and moveable mass to manage buoyancy and pitch. Get started with SeaGlide for $249.
Real-world application. Today, full-scale underwater gliders are being deployed for months at a time to collect valuable data about the world’s oceans. While SeaGlide cannot run for months at a time, it can collect temperature and pressure data as it flies through the water! Test the limits of your glider – maybe yours will be the next to take on the Great Barrier Reef!
What Students Say
“SeaPerch allows us to solve problems in a strategic way while exploring new concepts and ideas,” said Andover Sharks 2018 SeaPerch team member Curtis Lee. “The skills we learn while practicing and preparing can also be applied to a variety of industries, so we’re getting a jumpstart for college and beyond.” Check out the highlights from the 2018 International SeaPerch Challenge.
- Find out more: robonation.org and follow the community at #wearerobonation.
- Team rules to enter the international challenge: https://www.seaperch.org/challenge application
RoboCupJunior (RCJ) is an educational robotics initiative aiming to promote robotics, programming, and STEM among students through a form of competition. It is one of the leagues of the RoboCup initiative.
The idea to create a RoboCup league for young roboticists was initiated by a group of researchers who wanted to foster an interest in robotics in the next generation of children. Today, its challenges, called leagues, use topics – soccer, rescue, and dance – that are familiar to students to attract and motivate them to explore educational robotics.
There are three leagues in RCJ – Soccer, Rescue, and OnStage. RCJ is open to anyone ages 8-19 years to participate.
RCJ does not require teams to use any specific robotics kit or equipment for building their robots and programming can be done with any coding language including graphic-based language including ev3, RoboLab, and LabView, or text coding. Teams can use any commercially available robotics kit such as LEGO Mindstorms, VEX, and Fischertechnik robot kit, but these need to be substantially modified by the team.
To start a team, you need a mentor (facilitator) who can help a team to prepare for the competition. There is a team size limit that could differ from year to year. The cost to participate is a combination of a team registration fee and member registration fee. It changes year to year. The US registration fee for 2018 was $90 per team (including one mentor) and $30 per member.
With the Soccer league, two teams of two soccer robots (2-on-2) play on a special field. During a game, the robots are programmed to detect and maneuver a soccer ball. There are two sub-leagues in Soccer – Lightweight which has a lighter weight limit and uses a special soccer ball emitting infrared light and Open which has a heavier robot and uses an orange ball.
Rescue requires teams to develop a rescue robot that can navigate through the rescue arena, which represents a scaled-down, simulated disaster scenario, and find victims. Rescue has three sub-leagues – LINE, MAZE, and Simulation. Rescue LINE uses a rescue mission requiring a robot to follow a line on the floor to navigate through a rescue arena. Rescue MAZE requires a robot to go through a maze to find victims in the arena. Rescue Simulation requires teams to create a solution using a simulator.
OnStage is a competition that integrates science, technology, engineering and the arts. Teams of two to five students present a 1 to 2-minute creative stage performance using autonomous robots that they have designed, built and programmed. The OnStage challenge is intended to be open-ended insofar as the performers can present any type of performing art they choose, including dance, storytelling, theatre and performance art.
- Learn more about RoboCupJunior USA: robocupjunior.us
- Register a team: http://robocupjunior.squarespace.com/2018reg/
- Inquiries about RoboCupJunior: email@example.com
- Forum where general information about rules can be found: https://junior.forum.robocup.org/
If you want to see what it’s like to be part of a robotics team, I encourage you to visit a local competition. Many events are open to the public and you can find an event by visiting each organization’s website. NASA also maintains an extensive list of robotics competitions.
You can also learn about robotics during National Robotics Week, a nationwide event to celebrate robotics. Every April, robotic events and activities are hosted around the country. This is an opportunity to take your children and learn about robotics and explore technology by seeing real-world applications. Visit NationalRoboticsWeek.org to find events near you.
Participation in robotics teams and competitions doesn’t have to end after high school. Many robotics programs extend to college-level participation including VEX, WRO, Robonation, and RoboCup.
Finally, while I have profiled the big national robotics programs in today’s post, many communities, schools, and after-school programs run their own robotics programs. Keep that in mind as you consider your options.