Deep in the “pit,” beneath the windowed dome of Raleigh’s Dorton Arena, throngs of middle- and high-school aged robotics teams drilled, sawed, wired, secured bolts and sweated on a sunny April afternoon, preparing their creations for competition.
Among the chaos of the pit were 10 teams of 4-H’ers from throughout North Carolina, competing for the very first time in the North Carolina Regional FIRST Robotics Competition.
After passing inspection, these rookie teams placed their creations into the “playing field” to battle other robots — and youth drivers — from all over the state.
While none of the 4-H teams advanced to the next round of competition, the Iredell County 4-H team became the only rookie team in the entire competition to win an award, taking home honors for “most perseverance.”
And for all of the youths involved, the experience would last a lifetime.
“My favorite part of all this is figuring out how to do things I didn’t think I could do,” said Rachel Borders, 15, of the Winston-Salem based Yellow Jackets 4-H robotics team. Teammate Naikeesha Poe-Smith, 14, said, “A lot of girls don’t get this kind of experience.”
The national 4-H organization partnered with NC FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and JC Penney to support pilot robotics programs in a number of states. North Carolina was one of the pilots chosen for participation, thanks in large part to the efforts of Dr. Kate Guerdat, 4-H Extension associate, and Chris Caveny-Cox, former 4-H Extension agent.
“This seemed like a great fit for our science-based curriculum, and the partnership with NC FIRST has been terrific,” Guerdat said. “Our kids have gained not only content knowledge, but a whole new experience in community involvement.
“Connecting to something larger —that’s what 4-H is all about,” she said.
For this first year of involvement, JC Penney covered all registration costs for the 4-H teams ($6,500 each). The company will continue to chip in, covering partial registration costs for the next two years.
“This is not a one-shot thing,” Guerdat said. “We’re trying to stretch these resources as far as possible.”
The process leading up to April’s competition began in January, with a kick-off event during which the teams were given a bag of parts and sent off to build their robots. The completed robots had to be shipped by the end of February, so these 4-H’ers, many of whom had never worked in robotics, didn’t have a lot of time.
They came face-to-face with their creations again on April 7, for the first time since sending them away in the winter. A few of the teams encountered problems that they had difficulty solving, but true to the nature of 4-H, these youngsters quickly befriended veteran teams who helped them out.
“It’s a FIRST philosophy called ‘gracious professionalism,’” said Caveny-Cox. “There is no failure here. It’s all about everyone working together and helping each other.”
4-H is N.C. Cooperative Extension’s youth education program.
— Suzanne Stanard