Learn All About Robotics Teams for Kids

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:

  1. FIRST
  2. REC Foundation/VEX Robotics
  3. World Robot Olympiad
  4. Robonation
  5. RoboCupJunior

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.

FRC Team Spartabots 2976
FRC Team Spartabots 2976

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

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.

Programs:

FIRST provides a progression of three international, after-school programs for K-12: FIRST ® LEGO® League; FIRST ® Tech Challenge; and FIRST ® Robotics Competition. 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.

1. FIRST LEGO League

FIRST LEGO League for grades PK-8 (ages 4 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, LEGO Education SPIKE Prime and LEGO Education WeDo 2.0. After a minimum of eight weeks, the FIRST LEGO League season culminates at high-energy, sports-like tournaments.

2. FIRST Tech Challenge

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.

3. FIRST Robotics Competition

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.

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REC Foundation/VEX Robotics

The Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation sparks interest in STEM by engaging more than one million students in hands-on, sustainable, and affordable curriculum-based robotics programs. Students increase their innovative thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills – all while having fun! These robotics programs enhance students’ academic journey to build a talented workforce in various STEM-related professions.

For the 2021-2022 season, the REC Foundation presents VEX IQ Challenge Pitching In for elementary and middle school students and VEX Robotics Competition Tipping Point to involve students in middle school through college in hands-on robotics and STEM across the United States and around the world.

Programs:

Getting involved in VEX Competitions is simple. Start by identifying the level of the program that is right for you based on your grade level. The program is flexible for use in school or after school. Parent 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 will need a robotics kit and team registration fees plus the cost to attend a competition locally.

Each year, two exciting engineering challenges are presented in the form of a game. Students, with guidance from their teachers and mentors, build innovative robots and compete year-round.

1. VEX IQ Challenge Pitching In

The VEX IQ Challenge Pitching In brings elementary and middle school students together to compete in teamwork challenges with custom-built robots using VEX IQ. Teams compete to attain the highest score. 

2. VEX Robotics Competition Tipping Point

VEX Robotics Competition Tipping Point brings middle school, high school, and college students together with support from their teachers and coaches to compete against each other with robots they designed, built, and programmed using VEX V5. The competition season culminates each spring at the REC Foundation’s VEX Robotics World Championship, where the best teams from across the United States and from more than 50 countries around the world gather to challenge their top-ranked peers to become World Champions.

Joining VEX robotics was a pivotal point in my life because it propelled me towards becoming a mechanical engineer. The experience helped me gain a scholarship to help pay for college, which consequently allowed me to pursue a graduate degree. The early exposure to robotics, through VEX, helped me excel in my undergraduate studies and fostered a desire to learn more about robotics specifically. As a result, I am working towards a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University where I am working on space robotics specifically. I started building small robots for VEX, and now I am working on a lunar rover called MoonRanger in collaboration with NASA. After I complete my graduate degree, I hope to continue a career in building robots to help advance our world.” – Morgan Montalvo, REC Foundation Alumni.

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World Robot Olympiad

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.  

Programs:

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. 

1. Regular Category

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).

2. Open Category

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.

3. Soccer Category

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.

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Robonation

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.

Programs:

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. 

1. SeaPerch

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.

2. SeaGlide

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!

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  • Find out more: robonation.org and follow the community at #wearerobonation.

RoboCupJunior

RoboCupJunior (RCJ) is an educational robotics initiative aiming to promote robotics, computer science, Artificial Intelligence, 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 understand the need to foster an interest in robotics among the next generation of children. Today, its challenges, called leagues, use topics – soccer, rescue, and stage performances – that are familiar to students to attract and motivate them to explore robotics, AI, computing, and STEM.

Programs:

There are three leagues in RCJ – Soccer, Rescue, and OnStage. RCJ is open to anyone ages 8-19 years to participate in the US. To participate in the international competition, all team members must be 14 or older. 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 block-based languages, Python, C languages, Java, etc. 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 registration fee to participate in a competition is the combination of a team registration fee and a member registration fee. It also changes from year to year. 

1. Soccer

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 (called Standard in the US) which has a heavier robot and uses an orange ball.

2. Rescue

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 the simulator.

3. OnStage

OnStage is a competition that integrates science, technology, engineering, and the arts. Teams of 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.  

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Conclusion

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

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 child and learn about robotics and explore technology by seeing real-world applications. Find events near you.

NASA also maintains a robust website about all things robotics

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.

 

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