The National Robotics Challenge (NRC) comes to Marion, Ohio, on March 7-8, 2008. This unique competition encourages middle school, high school, and college students to learn about robotic engineering through hands-on projects. The two day event takes place at the Marion County Fairground Coliseum, down the street from the RobotWorx facility.
The NRC first came to Marion in 2004, and RobotWorx President Keith Wanner was the keynote speaker in 2005. This year, RobotWorx is proud to be involved once again. RobotWorx will lead tours of its facility on the 7th. Vice President Jarrod Bichon will participate as a competition judge.
The National Robotics Challenge has a dozen competition categories. They include programming a robot to create artwork, pick and place parts, Sumo wrestle with other robots, and assemble.
Tad Douce, a technology teacher at Marion's River Valley Middle School and an NRC founder sums up the competition this way; "It's mostly to create more problem-solving and engineering people in the world - to prepare students for the real world. The projects are closely related to real-world manufacturing and real-world engineering."
Across the nation, schools have been phasing out "extra" classes such as shop and art, to focus solely on improving achievement test scores. Douce sees this as a problem; "We're not creating thinkers. We're creating dictionaries or recorders that spit back information," he said. This is especially detrimental for kids in the younger grades, "There's nothing available - there's a real hunger for the middle aged students to be creative - and make things," Douce said.
Competitions like the National Robotics Challenge are creating opportunities for kids to get their hands dirty. The NRC teaches kids that learning about technology can be fun. At the same time, the competition maintains high standards: "It provides the next level of instruction for the students and provides competition you don't get in the classroom," Douce said. "It's not whether the judges think your project looks nice - It has to perform."
The National Robotics Challenge was once called the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Robotic Technology and Engineering Challenge (SME/RTEC), but this event ended in 2003 when SME had to discontinue sponsorship. Douce and two other Marion educators, Ed Goodwin (River Valley High School) and Ritch Ramey (Tri Rivers Vocational School and Marion Technical College) continued the competition with a new name and location. The Marion Fairgrounds Coliseum was available and there was considerable support from the educational community.
Marion continues to be a very supportive environment. The NRC board and judging panel includes local educators and several engineers from area businesses, including Whirlpool.
Douce said he strives to make the NRC an affordable option. The charge is $40 for each school and $8 for each robot, compared to competitions that cost hundreds to thousands of dollars to enter. In order to keep the entry fees low, the NRC is staffed entirely by volunteers. Douce said this approach is working well.
Last year, there were 200 NRC entries with 400 students representing some 35 schools from a total of eight states. Douce is optimistic about the future, "We're in a mode of continual expansion."