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Geared for Success: UIL robotics competitions prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow

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La Feria High School students put their engineering skills to the test in a UIL robotics competition. Photo courtesy of UIL

It’s Friday night in the high school gymnasium. The bleachers are jam-packed with fans cheering for their favorite teams. The mascots and pep squads are pumping up the crowd , and the excitement is reaching a crescendo.

This may sound like a typical scene at a high school basketball game. But there’s something different about the players shooting for hoops: They’re homemade robots made out of metal, wire and other spare parts found in the garage. Created by students (grades 9-12), the robots are the star players in the University Interscholastic League (UIL) robotics competitions, which have become popular events in high schools across Texas.

Schools can choose to compete in two divisions and the challenges vary. Some competitions require students to build a robot that completes specific tasks—from shooting hoops to flying through the air. Other events require students to build robots and market their creations to a panel of judges. No matter what the game entails, the goal remains the same: to provide hands-on learning and STEM education to students in schools across Texas.

“There is a clear need to prepare today’s students for the jobs of tomorrow, many of which are STEM related,” says Dr. Charles Breithaupt, UIL executive director.

Dr. David Stevens, UIL director of academics, says the robotics competitions help students learn in a fun, competitive environment.

“The competitions really help them develop teamwork and problem-solving skills,” Stevens says. “They’re cross-applying what they’re learning in math, science and the arts to real world situations—whether it’s fixing a sound system in a one-act play or repairing a refrigerator at home.”

In partnership with state chapters of national robotics programs—FIRST® in Texas and BEST™ Robotics—the UIL launched the robotics pilot program in the 2015-16 school year to encourage exploration in STEM fields. The UIL approved two new state championship events, in conjunction with FIRST® and BEST™, one in fall 2016 and one in spring 2017.

“The entire FIRST® community is honored to partner with the UIL to help further the extraordinary efforts of making robotics programs accessible to students throughout Texas,” says Ray Almgren, chair of FIRST® in Texas and chief marketing officer at SwiftSensors, Inc. “UIL’s recognition of robotics is a turning point for the widespread
accessibility and adoption of student robotics programs across the state and nationwide.”

Texas is the largest state to implement a Robotics State Championship, expanding opportunities to students who may not already be participating in current UIL events.

“The biggest advantage about UIL taking on robotics is that this programming is more accessible to schools across Texas, particularly the rural schools,” Stevens says. “You see students of all backgrounds getting involved in robotics and being successful with it.”