Major robotics event at Madera South an economic boost
Madera South High School will be home this week to more brainpower than is ordinarily seen in the Valley.
The school is hosting a regional high school robotics competition that is one step away from the world championships — regarded as the Super Bowl of Smarts — being held in St. Louis later this month.
About 2,000 students from 50 schools, including one from Mexico and another from Hawaii, will compete for the right to vie for the FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — world title. Six teams will qualify out of the regional to the championship round.
The Madera event begins Thursday with practice runs and ends Saturday afternoon.
The first-time event for the Valley also will be a shot in the arm for the local economy. Overflow from Madera hotels is spilling into Fresno, said Jake Bragonier, a spokesman for Madera Unified.
Other regional events around the country are at major universities and larger cities, including Las Vegas, Cincinnati and Houston.
Madera was chosen as a regional qualifier site — comparable to college basketball’s Elite Eight — because Valley robotics programs have grown steadily, and some, such as Buchanan, Clovis North and Madera high schools, have earned regional and national honors.
Those three teams and five others — Edison, Hoover, Duncan Polytechnical, Tower Christian in Clovis and a combined Clovis West-Center for Advanced Research and Technology team — will compete in the Madera regional.
“There were indicators from all the Clovis schools, Madera, Fresno schools … to show that they were ready for this,” said Jim Beck, a retired San Jose State engineering professor and senior regional director for FIRST. “It was a real natural movement for us to establish an event in Madera.”
Robotics teams are vying not only for titles, but $15 million in scholarships, and they have to work with other teams to earn those titles. Three of the six teams that go to the world competition are in an alliance.
It’s a concept known as “co-opertition,” which extends into the competition itself and can earn teams awards as they join with others. It’s not unusual that more than one team wins a title, and that idea is constantly impressed upon competitors.
Those alliances start from a team’s inception. When teams get started, they join with other more-established teams that teach them the robotics ropes. This year, Duncan Polytechnical in Fresno was a partner with the long-established and highly successful Buchanan team. A couple of years ago, Clovis North was mentoring Edison’s new team.
As students mentor each other, they also learn from teachers and assistant coaches who work in scientific professions and offer their real-world experiences to students, said Alan Hollman, a vice principal at Madera High School and the coordinator of this week’s event.
So it’s not the typical competition Americans have grown accustomed to viewing.
“This shifts the focus off of sports heroes and we can start looking at our kids as technology heroes,” Hollman said. “They are involved in problem solving, critical thinking and thinking beyond the box.”
That teamwork serves as a learning experience for college and the working world, said Devin Blizzard, CEO for CART, the high school technology program run by the Fresno and Clovis unified school districts.
It’s the same kind of teamwork that went into the lobbying for Madera as host of this week’s event. When Madera Unified started making plans to host the event, Clovis and Fresno school officials got behind them, he said.
The robotics event has long-term opportunities for the Valley, Blizzard said, because many students in robotics programs go on to take engineering classes in college. This week’s event will be a chance for the Valley to attract some of the best and brightest science students from across the Western United States.
“There are huge opportunities to network the Valley,” he said. “Maybe some of these kids from other places will start coming to the Valley.”
It will cost $75,000 to hold the event and sponsors still are being sought, Blizzard said. Sponsors include: Lyles College of Engineering at Fresno State, JCPenney, JBT Food Tech in Madera and Platt Electric in Madera.
More than 130 volunteers will work at the Madera competition, officials said.
“This is an event worth fighting for,” Blizzard said. “If we do it right, it will return year after year.”
By Marc Benjamin