Will their robot get through the massive planetary sandstorm?

High school robotics team preps for international game competition in the Innevation Center’s Makerspace

Members of FYRE Robotics explore engineering and design in the Makerspace in the University of Nevada, Reno Innevation Center—Powered By Switch.

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3/11/2019 | By: Jane Tors |

Having landed on another plant, the team must deploy their robot to load and move cargo when a sudden, massive sandstorm blocks all visibility.

This is part of the premise of 2019 Destination: Deep Space, the national FIRST Robotics Competition (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology). Reno-area team FYRE Robotics, or First Young Robotics Engineers, received the robotics-game challenge on Jan. 5 and met the deadline to have their robot "bagged and tagged" by Feb. 19. They are ready for a regional competition March 22-23 at the University of California, Davis, one of several FIRST competitions happening around the world in March and April.

Over a four-week period, the Makerspace in the University of Nevada, Reno Innevation Center-Powered By Switch was home-base to the 15 members of FYRE Robotics, ages 13 to 18, as they designed and built their robot. Their project then moved to The Reno Generator, a local art and maker space with an open area in which the FYRE team conducted tests and finished building.

"It really changes a kid's life, and it has nothing to do with the robot the kids build or whether or not it works," Kerry Thompson, primary organizer of and mentor to FYRE Robotics, said of the annual competition. "It doesn't matter if they can drill a hole straight or screw a screw in straight. It has to do with what they learn and what they can accomplish."

Build sessions typically total 40 hours a week, a significant commitment for the students and their mentors.

"Through the build season, the FYRE students file in at 5 p.m.," said Crystal Harvey, assistant director of the Innevation Center. "They bring the Makerspace to life in the evenings and our members that work late in the Makerspace comment on the exceptional energy and work ethic of the FYRE team. The Makerspace is being used exactly as it was intended, to bring ideas to life, and the FYRE Robotics mentors are able to bring this resource to the K-12 students who are passionate about STEM, hands-on building and innovative design."

"It's essentially another full time job for me during build season," said Thompson, who has been a FIRST robotics mentor for 10 years, including five years with FYRE Robotics since she moved to Reno from Florida. "I do it because of what it can do for the kids and how it changes them and to see what they can do afterwards with their lives. It's super cool."

Aside from the challenge of designing and building a robot for the game, the students help find financial support and mentors. FYRE Robotics generated a budget of $20,000 which means they can go to one competition in 2019. They were one of four Northern Nevada teams to receive support through Tesla's initiative for STEM education and several of FYRE's six mentors this season are Tesla employees.

Thompson says the average FIRST Robotics Competition team has 40 students and one team has 120. Bigger teams are better prepared to develop skill-focused subgroups and to modify their robot at the challenge.

FYRE Robotics is on the small side, with 15 students from a number of local schools. But this means each team member can be part of every aspect of the design and build process. One of the rewards is the sense of accomplishment shared across the team, and nearly all of the team members return to FYRE Robotics year after year.

This year, in addition to support from the Innevation Center, The Generator and Tesla, FYRE received support received support from the Davidson Academy, Arche Precision, ERC, Click Bond, Wayne's Automotive, GroupGets, Sierra Nevada Corp, Barnes & Nobel, EDAWN, Lux Dynamics, Bavarian Auto Haus, Arrow Electronics, Electronics Evolution Technology, Nevada Industry Excellence, WetLAB, Horiba, Fitness for Ten, BreadWare, Northern Nevada Allergy Clinic and Kumon.

The Innevation Center and its well-equipped Makerspace are key elements of the University's Innovation Ecosystem which is helping stimulate ideation, invention and entrepreneurialism in Nevada. For more information, visit unr.edu/innevation. For more information about FYRE Robotics, visit their Facebook page, @FYRErobotics.

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