Founder voices: Terri Willingham of The Eureka! Factory, Roboticon, Gulf Coast Makercon

The Eureka! Factory is small local cooperative of business partners and friends who are in the business of creative empowerment.

Run by me and my husband Steve, we work as consultants for local libraries and other community organizations interested in developing public makerspaces and creative programming, and produce two main events in the area: ROBOTICON Tampa Bay, a FIRST K-12 STEM Showcase and Off-Season competition, and Gulf Coast MakerCon, Tampa Bay’s oldest maker festival.
This year, ROBOTICON moved from the University of Tampa to larger digs at the USF Sun Dome Arena, where it drew 2,000 guests and participants to enjoy FIRST “Sport for the Mind.”

FIRST® is a 27-year-old international nonprofit K-12 STEM education program serving over 400,000 students in over 80 countries.

Ninety percent volunteer-run, with support from a comprehensive network of Fortune 500 corporations, educational and professional institutions, foundations, and individuals, FIRST provides over $30 million in college scholarships. Programs include FIRST® Robotics Competition for students in Grades 9-12; FIRST® Tech Challenge for Grades 7-12; FIRST® LEGO®League for Grades 4-8; and FIRST® LEGO®League Jr. for Grades K-4 – all the programs we showcased at ROBOTICON.

It takes a village

Even with the threat of Hurricane Matthew, over 60 teams came from around Florida to participate in the event, as well as three teams China. In addition to robot competition scrimmages and an off-season FIRST Robotic Competition-level event, students and public guests (the event was free to the public) got to  enjoy an Innovation Fair featuring interactive exhibits from the USF College of Engineering, GitHub, Cogmation Virtual Robotics Toolkit and others. There were also tours of engineering labs, and workshops for students and educators over the course of the two-day event.

It takes a village to produce ROBOTICON, and what made the event especially exciting this year -- besides the fact that we had to contend with a looming hurricane! -- was the fantastic  partners who came together to make the largest off-season event in Florida, possible. Some of our long time partners were on hand, like Hillsborough County, which issued a Proclamation naming October ROBOTICON Month.

The Doolittle Institute hosted the ROBOTICON Challenge this year, with cash awards to the top FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition level teams.  PLuGHiTz Live Radio, a Largo-based tech podcast and product review company that provides live coverage for both ROBOTICON and Gulf Coast MakerCon, hosted some great interviews and stories that help people really understand and enjoy the events. We also had some terrific new partners, like the University of South Florida College of Engineering and Nielsen Corporation.

“Hosting Roboticon was a remarkable and eye-opening experience for the USF community,“ says Dr. Robert H. Bishop, P.E, Dean of Engineering. “The Sun Dome is a very large arena, and when you see it filled with hundreds of talented, creative and innovative students -- along with their families, cheering enthusiastically -- you can’t help but be impressed and excited about our future as a region and a state.
“We had a team from China who traveled all the way here to learn and compete with our teams. We had a group of educators from Brazil who wanted to learn about how robotics could help their children learn STEM skills. That tells us that the world is looking to the Tampa Bay Region and Florida for innovative approaches in learning and we are thankful that there are organizations like FIRST  that work on a local level to encourage our children. There is a tremendous amount of talent in our state, and our university is committed to do its part in nurturing, growing and leveraging that talent for the greater good.” 

Enthusiastic supporters 

"Nielsen is excited to support Roboticon as one of the fantastic STEM programs here in Tampa Bay,“ CIO Kim Anstett tells us.“ It is critically important that we focus on giving our K-12 students locally the opportunity to have hand-on experience with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics."

Ned Pope, Technology Process Manager at Nielsen, says, “I'm simply amazed at the sophistication and functionality of the robots these kids are able to create while also balancing their schooling and other responsibilities. I attended the event with my son (age 3) and he's ready to learn to build robots right now! I'm proud that Nielsen chose to sponsor such a great event."

Marvin Scaff, CTO and Co-Founder of adjoy, Managing Director Liquidity Engine, LLC as well as founder of Gazelle Lab, says, “As a parent and entrepreneur, I see nothing but good things that come from programs such as these. Nurturing and fostering talent to help these teams compete on a national level will give these kids an unfair advantage as they age out and pursue further academic pursuits and careers that will leverage these experiences.’’

What’s next?

The next Tampa Bay area FIRST robotics event is the 2017 FIRST Robotics Competition Kick Off at SOFWERX in Ybor City, where local teams will get to see the live kick off game reveal for their 2017 challenge, FIRST STEAMWorks, the game everyone will see and enjoy at the 2017 ROBOTICON Tampa Bay event next October.

Up next for Eureka! Factory: Gulf Coast MakerCon on April 8 at the Florida State Fairgrounds Special Events Center.  New in 2017, we’ll have drone races, thanks to yet another great collaborative partnership with Cigar City Multirotors, as well as expanded exhibit areas, displays and exhibitions.

Stay up to date with happenings at EurekaFactory and our associated media, GulfCoastMakers and ROBOTICON.

Terri Willingham is also the co-Author of Makerspaces in Libraries, along with Dutch Librarian Jeroen de Boer. The book was published by Rowman and Littlefield, and is being used by libraries nationwide and worldwide as a guide for developing public creative spaces.

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