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FIRST Robotics Competition fuses STEM and teamworkApril 10, 2018

It sounded like a university basketball championship. But the roar that echoed throughout McMaster’s David Braley Athletic Centre actually came from hundreds of tech-loving high school students at this year's FIRST Robotics District Competition.

Hosted by the Faculty of Engineering for the second time, the technology and engineering (STEM) event drew hundreds of people to watch 38 teams of Ontario high school-aged students operate robots that zipped around an 8-bit arcade-themed obstacle course.  

The event, held from April 6 to 8,  featured Science Minister Kirsty Duncan who spoke at the opening ceremonies and met one-on-one with students alongside Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas MP, Filomena Tassi.

"This event teaches us all an important lesson: if we give students the opportunity to show their creativity and ambitions in science, they will always surprise us," Duncan said. "I am inspired by all of the students who worked together to create these remarkable robots. I applaud their efforts and commend their teachers and parents who helped these students harness the power of science and technology." 

Wearing a bright yellow jersey and 8-bit glasses, in keeping with the arcade theme of the competition, head referee, Prakhar Garg received smiles, high fives and hugs from fellow volunteers and participants every where he went.

The mechatronics engineering & management student, who is graduating this year, is a long-time participant and dedicated volunteer for FIRST. During Sunday’s award ceremony, he was recognized as “Outstanding Volunteer.”

“The experience you get when you build something with your hands or when you take on a project you really care about, you learn a lot more, said Garg. “You become an expert in your field.” 

Garg was proud of the impression McMaster made on the high school students participating in the competition.

“Students now understand how amazing McMaster is and what we have to offer to them.”

What stood out to Abrahim Fakir was the support McMaster Engineering has for FIRST students.  

“One thing I noticed last year and again this year was when they announced the scholarships there was so much enthusiasm from the Dean and the crowds were ecstatic,” said the Oakville Trafalgar high school student and captain of the Red Devils, Team 1334.

Ishwar Puri, the Faculty’s Dean of Engineering, announced six entrance scholarships for FIRST students, four of which are funded by the Faculty and another two sponsored by ArcelorMittal Dofasco. Each scholarship is valued at $15K – the most funds a Canadian academic institution has offered incoming undergraduate students.   

"The world needs engaged young minds to meet the global grand challenges facing our world," said Puri, who kicked off the event on Saturday. "Issues ranging from improving water quality to eradicating disease to building the next-generation vehicle must be addressed. The skills FIRST Canada helps youth develop will foster future leaders with critical thinking skills, ingenuity, compassion and ambition."

Seerat Rehman, a grade 12 student from Rick Hansen Secondary School in Mississauga and member of Theory 6, Team 1241 hopes to attend McMaster one day. 

“I love the area, the school itself and the curriculum. Everything is great about this school,” she gushed. 

Rehman also enjoyed the family-feel of the competition. “It’s not like you’re really competing. It’s an environment filled with positive energy. You’re building a support system with people interested in getting into the same fields as you.”  

Sportsmanship is something Samantha Hollinrake takes to heart. The 16-year-old student from Iroquois Ridge High School in Oakville, and media lead for Orbit Robotics, Team 1360, helped the Timberwolves, a robotics team from Pelican Falls First Nations High School, earn $25K in government funding following last year’s event.

 “When we heard they travelled 15 hours by boat, by train and by plane to get here, we wanted to help tell their story,” she explains.

She produced a video about the team, which got the attention of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). After seeing the enriching experience the team had at FIRST, INAC wanted to sponsor them. 

“We have a group of 12 team members who worked very hard to put our robot together,” said Timberwolves team member, Lee Skunk. His favourite part about the competition was entering the field for the first time.

Hollinrake delivered an inspiring speech during Day 2 of opening ceremonies that got the crowd buzzing for another day of robot fun. She is currently producing a second video that highlights how last year’s funding supported the Pelican Falls team and helped them grow.

“FIRST Robotics means helping others, however you can. It’s always more than just building a robot,” she added. 

Watch more videos from #FIRSTatMac 2018.