Montana State University

Robots inspire students to think big

January 11, 2008 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service

Ronan High School students, Evan Waldron (left), Felco Zais and Troy McMillan guide their robot Friday at the Montana FTC Championships at Montana State University in Bozeman. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.)    High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
Troy McMillan and Evan Waldron stood side by side at the ready. McMillan rolled his shoulders and shook his head like a prizefighter. Waldron took a deep breath and focused. Weeks of work and many late nights were about to be decided in the next 140 seconds.

The Ronan High School students and their two other teammates -- Alex Greenfield and Falco Zais -- had built a robot for the FIRST Tech Challenge competition held on Friday at Montana State University.

The Ronan students were one of 22 high school teams from across Montana, Wyoming and Utah that came for the robotics competition. Teams competed against each other to see whose robot could maneuver most deftly in a 12x12 foot arena where points were awarded for moving rings into boxes, onto small platforms or hooking them onto rods. Four robots were in an arena at the same time and each match lasted for a chaotic 140 seconds. Each team had numerous rounds of competition.

"The adrenaline is just going," Waldron said. "It's intense."

McMillan and Waldron worked together running different controls on the robot. One drove while the other operated an arm to pick up the rings.

"It's really a partnership. We're letting each other know what to do," McMillan said. "The adrenaline is just awesome."

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a national program started in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen, who was seeking a way to inspire young people about science, technology and engineering. FIRST robotics competitions are now held around the world with more than 90,000 participants.

"I'm an exchange student from Germany and competed there," said Zais. "We didn't do very well so I wanted to try it again here. It's great to see what you can do to put one of these monsters together."

"It's really fun to see a design you've thought up and built succeed," Greenfield said.

The competition was hosted by MSU's College of Engineering and sponsored by Qwest Foundation, RightNow Technologies, Montana Space Grant Consortium, National Science Foundation's EPSCoR, MSU's Thermal Biology Institute and Center for Bio-inspired Nanomaterials, and MSU's Vice President for Research Office.

"This program brings together so many valuable skills for these students -- teamwork, communication, creativity, problem solving, patience, and perseverance -- in a hands-on practical way," said Sheree Watson, competition coordinator for the MSU College of Engineering.

On Saturday, students ages 9 to 14 will compete in the FIRST LEGO League. More than 100 volunteers helped with the two competitions.

During the Friday competition, rock music played over the arena, video cameras projected different angles of the action on big screens for an audience of friends, family and fellow students. A master of ceremonies kept things lively with a radio-DJ-like patter.

"It's been really interesting," said Daniel Prewitt, from Simms High School, west of Great Falls. "It's been something I look forward to everyday after school. It's a major rush to see something you've built do cool things in competition."

Prewitt's other teammates -- Chris Pschernig, Fred Rushton, Tyler Bennett and Katherine Leonardson -- had similar descriptions of the program.

"I really like that we get to build stuff," Rushton said. "I've played a lot with remote controlled things where you just push a button and something happens, but with this you actually get to see what's going on."

The goal of inspiring students into the science, technology and engineering fields seemed to be working on Friday. For McMillan, building a robot has made him think about bigger things, like the two U.S.-built robots -- Spirit and Opportunity -- that are currently exploring the planet Mars.

"After doing this, I think I'd like to build robots for NASA," McMillan said. "It would be really sweet to have millions of dollars to build a robot for exploring Mars."

Simms beat Ronan in the quarterfinals. Simms was then eliminated in the semifinals.

For more information about FIRST, visit

Contact: Sheree Watson, (406) 994-6723; Elizabeth Brock, (406) 994-1564; Tracy Ellig (406) 994-7371.