Robotics competition teaches kids teamwork, STEM

  • Published
  • By Jeremy Dunn
  • Air Force Research Laboratory Public Affairs

Senior Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, leaders joined middle and high school students at Hobart Arena in Troy, Ohio, March 11, 2023, as the students competed in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, Tech Challenge Ohio State Championship. The FIRST Tech Challenge is a competition in which seventh through 12th grade students design, build and program robots to compete against other teams from across Ohio, learning science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, and teamwork in the process. 

“The competition is more than just robotics,” said Col. Joel Luker, AFRL vice commander. “It builds life skills for them. It teaches them how to work together, it teaches them communication skills and how to have fun too.”  

Teamwork is key to the work done at AFRL, Luker said.  Researchers must know how to reach out and integrate ideas from other disciplines to make something that works together. 

Teams of students built and programmed robots for the competition using Java with the help of coaches, mentors and volunteers. Match play involved alliances of two teams each, or four robots total, scoring points by stacking cones on pylons of various heights. In the first portion of each round, the robots operated autonomously until officials signaled, allowing the teams to manually control robots using smartphones, tablets or repurposed video game controllers. 

“Part of the education is demystifying the term STEM,” said Dr. Tim Bunning, AFRL chief technology officer. “When so many kids, particularly young kids, are out there doing STEM every day … this is about trying to get them to realize that they have the ability if they choose, and it demystifies it.” 

Bunning said programs like the FIRST Tech Challenge are more accessible to students than it may seem and a brilliant mind for robotics is not necessary. It is more about wanting to explore an idea in such a way that it builds confidence because it is a team sport. The competition is less about educating a single person but about educating the community. 

“Everybody has a role to play in a STEM career field,” said Chief Master Sgt. Bill Fitch, AFRL command chief. “You can find your passion in whatever lane that is. It’s more broad than what they probably perceive. If they try something that is not a fit, there probably is something that is not too far away.” 

Robert Fookes Jr., director of engineering and technical management at Air Force Material Command, served as the guest speaker and spoke to the students. 

“You are the creators of our future,” Fookes said. “You are going to be the problem solvers, the innovators and the changemakers. You are going to establish what the future looks like.”  

This event marks the first year that the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, or WPAFB, Educational Outreach Office sponsored the FIRST Tech Challenge. The Educational Outreach Office seeks to increase student awareness in STEM, aviation and aerospace to develop the scientific and technical workforce to meet future defense technological challenges. 

“When kids are engaged in learning, when it is fun, they learn more,” said Brenda Ronnebaum, project manager of robotics education, WPAFB Educational Outreach Office. “This program does all the things we are looking for. It celebrates innovation; these kids are talking to one another about the innovative features of their robots. We are building career skills.” 

A Brandeis University study shows that students who participate in FIRST are two times more likely to have a durable interest in STEM and want to pursue a career in STEM, Ronnebaum said. This number is higher in under-served populations and is the highest among girls who go on to declare a STEM major in college than in control groups. 

When students are asked what they gain from participating in FIRST programs, they rarely mention coding, building or designing robots, Ronnebaum said. They talk about learning communication skills, learning to collaborate, working in a team, being a good teammate and conflict resolution. 

The theme of the FIRST Tech Challenge for the 2022-2023 robotics season was “Power Play,” tasking teams to reimagine the future of sustainable energy. The top 37 teams from across Ohio not only compete for the championship, but awards were also given for robot design, creative problem solving, collaborative teamwork and community outreach.  

“Today is where all of the hard work you have put into designing, building and programming your robots come to life during the thrilling competition,” said Clark Kelly, assistant dean of external relations and communications at Miami University, who served as emcee for the event. “Participants will compete in an [sustainable] energy-driven game that tests the limits of performance, efficiency and endurance as they power innovation forward.” 

The 2023 winning teams for the Ohio State Championship, the Oxymorons and Juniper Robotics, will advance to the FIRST Tech Challenge World Championships in Houston, Texas, April 19-22, 2023.  

The FIRST Tech Challenge began in 2005 and has grown to over 6,000 teams worldwide helping to make the next generation of innovators, Kelly said. 

For more information about the WPAFB Educational Outreach Office and the FIRST Tech Challenge, visit:

About AFRL 

The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit