Robotics competition brings STEM-focused K-12 students to Tampa

More than 50 teams of students from kindergarten age through to high school seniors will build robots, create lego structures, and participate in technology-themed challenges at Roboticon Tampa Bay on Saturday, Oct. 10, and Sunday, Oct. 11.

Roboticon Tampa Bay will host a series of FIRST Robotics (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) educational events during the two days at the Bob Martinez Athletics Center at the University of Tampa in downtown Tampa: a LEGO League, Tech Challenge and Robotics Competition. All of the events are open to the public.

FIRST Robotics programs around the world are largely volunteer-run; nearly 200,000 worldwide volunteers work with around twice that many students. Studies of students involved in FIRST activities have shown that involved students are 50 percent more likely to attend college than their peers, four times more likely to pursue a career in engineering, and 2.5 times more likely to volunteer in their communities, says Roboticon Tampa Bay organizer and Eureka Factory Founder Terri Willingham.

“Ultimately, we want to build a capable, technically literate and professional workforce of future employees and business leaders in Tampa, and we need young minds like the ones that will be at Roboticon,” Willingham says. “This is our chance to make a powerful impact on visiting students. Caring business professionals make a difference in children’s lives, and can influence our economic future, as well.”

By highlighting technology and robotics at the local Roboticon, Willingham seeks “to show youth attending the event why they might want to live, learn and work in Tampa as they move on from high school.”

Highlights of the two-day Roboticon Tampa Bay events include:FIRST LEGO League team scrimmages will “give folks the chance to see some of our youngest engineers in training,” says Willingham, while robot-building will earn some high school students awards.

In addition to educational workshops and interactive competitions, Roboticon Tampa Bay will feature music by teenage DJ Jake Delacruz, as well as a “tropical Star Wars” performance by Steel Pan Band from the Maestro Maines School of Music on Oct. 11 at 1 p.m.

Also on Sunday, visitors can browse the FIRST Robotics Teams fundraiser.

“Robots and a sale! How awesome is that?” Willingham exclaims.

In early fall 2015, FIRST released a Newspaper in Education special edition dedicated to STEM themes to middle and high school students statewide in an effort to bring student -- and administrative -- attention to STEM fields.

Rather than allocating funds primarily to sports or non-academic programs, Willingham says, public high schools that invest “school dollars and student time into more STEM-related programming will provide a far higher return on the investment for schools, students and the community.”

Roboticon Tampa Bay is one of many innovative local events to receive funding from the Hillsborough County Economic Development Innovation Initiative (EDI2) grant.

“The outlook for science and technology careers is robust,” Willingham says. “The future is what Roboticon is all about. What it’s showing: just a slice of a world full of empowered, educated, supported and inspired youth can do.”

Hillsborough County “sees that future,” she adds, “and we’re grateful for our county’s dedication to these goals.”

All of the weekend’s Roboticon Tampa Bay events are open to the public, and Willingham anticipates up to 1,000 students, parents, and interested attendees from around Tampa Bay and across the state of Florida to stop by the two-day weekend expo. Over 50 teams are slated to compete; double 2014’s numbers. 

Read more articles by Justine Benstead.

Justine Benstead is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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