Stillwater News Press

Local News

January 13, 2013

Annual robotics competition creates Oklahoma innovators

Sport for the mind inspiring interests in technical fields

STILLWATER, Okla. — The Cockadoodle Dominators and Ninja Munkees are getting ready to rumble with local teams — Thunderstorm and Maximus Roboticus — in a sport of minds that has proven to inspire students nationwide in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Teams met last week at the FIRST Robotics Competition kickoff at Oklahoma State University’s Wes Watkins Center, one of 81 worldwide sites announcing this year’s competition season involving 60,000 high school students.

“Combining the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology, the FRC Kickoff marks the beginning of the design and build season for an open-ended problem,” said Thunderstorm team coach Ron Markum. “Teams had the opportunity to meet at local kickoffs to compare notes, get ideas, make friends, find mentoring teams, learn the game, pick up the Kit of Parts, and get geared up for the exciting season of building robots to perform prescribed tasks against a field of competitors.”

 State school Superintendent Janet Barresi welcomed more than 1,100 Oklahoma high school students and mentors to the 2013 season. 

“When I look across this room I know I am looking at Oklahoma’s future innovators,” Barresi said.

FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — is a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen to spark student’s interest in technical fields. This year, NASA synchronized a broadcast to every kickoff site.

 The event featured the announcement of the 2013 FIRST Robotics Competition game, “Ultimate Ascent.” The game is played by two competing alliances of three teams of robots on a 27 X 54 foot field. Teams compete by throwing discs into goals during a two-minute and 15-second match. Extra points can be earned if the robots climb pyramids located near the middle of the field at the end of the match.

In addition to the unveiling of Ultimate Ascent game, teams also received a Kit-bot of parts to create robot game players. These kits included components such as motors, batteries, control systems, and a mix of automation components — but no instructions. Every team’s kit is identical. Students work with adult mentors over a six week time period to design, build, and test their robots prior to the engineering challenge competition March 29-30 at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City. Regional winners will advance to the national competition in St. Louis in April. Other awards will be given to teams that represent and embody the goals of FIRST as well as to outstanding student leaders.

More than $60,000 in legislative grants administered by the State Department of Education were distributed to start new groups and maintain existing teams, said FIRST Oklahoma Regional Director Harold Holley, a Stillwater resident. Two existing local teams were at the kickoff.

David Barth and Debbie Short coach the Meridian Technology team, Maximus Robotics, and Markum and Steve Trost mentor a community team, Thunderstorm.

 As an instructor in the Meridian pre-engineering academy, Barth said the robotics competition gives students real-world engineering experience including meeting a budget, presenting and answering project questions — and a deadline.

“They solve a real problem — and they have to be finished in six weeks,” he said. “Students learn as they go. Many of them have never even picked up a screwdriver.”

“I like learning how to operate all the tools,” said home school student Jacob Williamson. “The Markums let our team use their full machine shop at their house. He’s a really good mentor.”

All the mentors are volunteers. Markum’s day job is working as a mechanical and aerospace senior research engineer at OSU.

Stillwater High School student Daniel Huggins, who is in his sixth year with the Thunderstorm program, said working with Markum has been a big bonus. Huggins has learned to weld and work an electronics board in a laboratory-machine shop environment.

“Every year I’ve learned more about measuring the effectiveness of each robot, the power of teamwork and collaboration,” Huggins said. “Each member of the team works together to build and program the robots for the game.”

The hands-on learning is a real-world application of science, technology, engineering and math concepts in an atmosphere of team building, entrepreneurship, sportsmanship and fun, said Trost, Strategic Solutions International director of research and development. Engineering is not about what “I’m going to do by myself” but working with other people to find a solution, he said.  “The students brainstorm and work off one and other’s ideas.”

Students are paired with professionals like Trost so they are “playing with pros” to glamorize engineering. They develop mathematical skills and they are rewarded for their efforts.

“We learn teamwork skills — dividing up the work — one person can’t do everything,” said pre-engineering academy student Kyle Ross. “The short time frame is a challenge — and very difficult.”

All the teams help each other through the tradition of FIRST Values, specifically “gracious professionalism” developed by Dr. Woodie Flowers, FIRST National Adviser and Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Gracious professionalism is part of the ethos of FIRST. It’s a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community, Markum said.

Thunderstorm team members said there is fierce competition where knowledge and empathy are comfortably blended. Competitors must adhere to “coopertition” which is displaying unqualified kindness and respect in cooperating with each other even as they compete. Coopertition means competing always, but assisting and enabling others when you can, Markum said.

Several students have been in the program since elementary school. FIRST learning builds on itself, starting at age 6 and continuing through high-school levels up to age 18. Young people can participate at any level.  Participants master skills and concepts to aid in learning science and technology through innovative projects and robotics competitions, while gaining valuable employment skills. In Junior FIRST LEGO League, teams design and construct a model with moving parts using LEGO elements and present their research journey on a poster. In Grades 4-8 or ages 9 to 16, teams build LEGO-based autonomous robots and develop research projects based on real-world challenges. First Tech Challenge involves grades 9-12 where teams develop strategy, build robots using a reusable, modular kit of parts and compete.

Ten years from today, one of these students is going to be out in the world having done something extraordinary for a major global problem, predicts OSU Dean of Engineering Paul Tikalsky. A Brandeis University study showed FIRST participants are 50 percent more likely to attend college and twice as likely to go on to major in science or engineering. Tikalsky said he grew up in a tiny town and he is encouraging the students to make their dreams come true by offering $60,000 in OSU scholarships to the students on the winning teams.

“We need to solve a lot of serious problems in the world and you are the people to do it,” Tikalsky told students at the FIRST Kickoff. “Education is the most valuable thing you can invest your time in and we want kids to wrap their minds around a passion for problem solving and ignite their interest in understanding the world. This sport of math can create the next kid that does something unbelievable.”

Karl Reid, OSU Regents Service Professor, said three students who participated in FIRST programs have become superstars in the academic world with Chad O’Conner, Lashum Oakley and Alex Whiteway earning OSU Allen Scholarships to study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Reid said the FIRST program teaches much more than robotics - “it teaches life skills.”

 “Our goal is to get high school students interested in careers in science and technology and to teach them the character skills necessary to manage the ever increasing technology in a way that is beneficial to themselves and society,” said Ron Markum. “Our students come from a variety of backgrounds and schools. Currently, we have students from Stillwater high school, Stillwater junior high, private Christian schools, various home schools, and Enid and Perkins high schools.”

 More than 3,500 of the world’s leading corporations, foundations and government agencies are helping sponsor the program on a national level but the local teams need help.

“This is our sixth year in existence and we have a good group of students and adult mentors that support our team. The entrance fees and parts for the competition are not cheap and we raise funds through donations, working jobs and fundraisers, such as building Storm Pits for other FIRST teams. We are always looking for other ways to earn funds and benefit our community,” he said.

The pit structures the team designed sets up in less than five minutes and could be ideal for craft shows as they are portable - but sturdy and adaptable to function well on any site. The team would also like to test out their robot before the state competition by traveling to another regional in Lubbock, Texas if funds become available

Visit for more information. The web site for Markum’s team is or email him at If you are interested in starting a new team, contact Holley at 405-377-1250 or


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