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Fourth annual robotics competition grows at Ag Center

The fourth annual VEX Robotics Mid-Atlantic Championship at the Carroll County Agriculture Center has been permanently postponed. Instead, it will be a Maryland state championship that fills the Shipley Arena held on March 8, but the change is not because of a lack of interest.

According to Jim Crane, Mid-Atlantic regional manager for the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation, which organizes the event, it's quite the opposite.

"It didn't get canceled, it just got revamped," he said. "As the VEX robotics competition has grown in size, the Mid-Atlantic competition was pulling from Virginia and Pennsylvania, but we have now grown to the size where rather than have each of those states come to one location, each state will now hold their own championship."

The result, according to David Franc, the volunteer organizer for the event and the coach of three 4-H teams that will be competing, is a larger, perhaps even more competitive event.

"At the Mid-Atlantic competition, I don't think we ever had more than 70 or 80 teams there and we are going go have 100 or more teams this year at the Maryland Championship," he said. "We have our [three] 4-H based teams, two high school [age teams] and the middle school age team, and then Century High School down in Sykesville also has a number of teams attending."

Crane said that the sport, if it can be called a sport, is certainly growing: Maryland had 176 teams in total in 2012 and now has 269. Nationally, there were 3,183 teams in 2012 and there are now 9,696.

Teams from all across Maryland will converge on the Ag Center's Shipley Arena on March 8 for a competition that will be free and open to the public, according to Crane. The contest will pair teams up in matches where they attempt to score points by moving colored balls across a playing field using partially autonomous robots, according to Crane.

Winning teams from state championship competitions will have a chance to compete at the world championship event in Anaheim, Calif., in April, Crane said.

The Robotics Education & Competition Foundation is the nonprofit arm of VEX Robotics, the company that manufacturers the parts of the robots used in the competitions.

The VEX Robotics Challenge was originally a part of the FIRST Robotics Competition, another robotics competition league that is part of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, an organization founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen to promote engineering for youth. The two organizations split seven years ago, however, and Crane said the biggest difference is that VEX robots are somewhat smaller than those used at the high school and college level in the FIRST competitions, a difference that is not without its advantages.

"They scaled it down to much smaller sized robots so that each robot could fit in an 18 by 18 by 18 inch cube and it is played on a 12 by 12 foot field rather than a basketball court," Crane said. "This way you can put the robot in the back of your car and you don't have to rent a truck to compete."

The relatively small size of the VEX robots makes building a team much more cost effective, according to Buck Ferrin, a science teacher and Century High School in Sykesville who coaches the school's four teams.

"The registration [for FIRST] is $6,000," he said. "With VEX, we can build a robot for $2,000.

Beyond the fun of competition, Ferrin said the VEX competitive season - which begins in April and runs all year - provides a cost effective way to introduce students to skills that are not commonly taught in Carroll County Public Schools.

"We have an excellent opportunity to expose kids to engineering, teaching these kids to go through the design process," he said. "We teach them to program because that is not something conveniently offered in Carroll County Public Schools. We have kids programming in C for this." C is a computer programming language.

Katie Biggs is a Century High School junior competing with one of the school's three teams for her second year. She discovered the robotics club through two of her friends and instantly realized it was for her.

"I want to be an engineer later in life so I thought his would be a good way to starting collecting the skills that will be useful then," she said. "I was somewhat interested in being an engineer before, but this really helped me focus that possibility."

Interest in robotics at Century High School has also paced the growing interest nationwide, according to Century junior AJ Johnson, who will also be competing at the state championship on one of the school's teams.

"The size of the rookie team every year has grown," he said. "We are getting a bigger following here at Century."

"This is our fourth year of having a robotics club at Century and we have increased by one team every year," Ferrin said. "The first year we had one team with six kids and we did one event. This year we have done six events and are going to states."

Ferrin said that while the competition may be a little strange or even chaotic for spectators who have never witnessed it before, the excitement of the participants is infectious.

"On of our most interested spectators is the custodian that does my part of the building," he said. "Every year that we do the Ag Center, she comes by to see the kids. She does not know what the game is, but she loves seeing these kids in their element and I think that's what the average Joe would get out of it. Seeing these kids get such passion out of this, it's just amazing."

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