Monday, May 7, 2018
Photo of Rebecca Whitaker in Bucharest, Romania

Rebecca Whitaker in front of her hotel in Bucharest, Romania

FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) is a middle and high school based program in which teams of students design, build, and program robots. Under the direction of Rebecca Whitaker, the University of Iowa College of Engineering has been the Affiliate Partner organization for FIRST Tech Challenge since 2009. Through this partnership, the Iowa program has become known across the world as a leader with FIRST Tech Challenge.

Due to the successes of FIRST Tech Challenge in Iowa through hosting large tournaments, Whitaker was invited to attend the FTC Championship in Bucharest, Romania. Her travel was funded, in part, by International Programs and the Stanley-UI Foundation Support Organization. Whitaker's reflections from her March 2018 trip to Bucharest are below.

In preparation for attending the Romania FIRST Tech Challenge Championship, I participated in several planning Skype sessions with judges, referees, and event planners. The schedule for the event was for 96 teams, mostly from Romania and Russia. The planning team in Romania did not understand the details required for such a large tournament.

Photo of FTC notebook

Image of an engineering notebook submitted by one of the teams

The day I arrived in Romania, it was cold! The venue was a large empty sports arena with lots of marble and no hand railings on the stairs. The amount of marble gave the indication the venue was built when Romania was under the control of Communism. The Romania FTC team had received the materials for the competition fields of the robots, but they were not assembled. Since I had experience building fields, I got into it and started unpacking, riveting, and taping the field materials. (The same game, the same challenge, and identical elements are used across the world for FIRST Tech Challenge.)

When I left the venue that evening, it had started snowing! It ended up snowing all night long and, by morning, there were about six inches of snow. I’m glad I had brought my winter coat! This snow was unique as it had pulled up sand from the Sahara desert and it had an orange tint to it. 

The teams of high school students trudged through the snow, showed up on time, and were ready to compete. A total of 91 teams attended. Even though we didn’t speak the same language, we could understand each other through the robots! 

The first day of competition consisted of robot inspections (hardware and programming) and a 20-minute judging interview for each of the teams. Teams also had to submit an engineering notebook, and they were great!

After this had concluded, teams could depart. The second and third days of competition were matches, in which teams formed two-team alliances and competed with their robots on the playing field. The matches ran into the third day as well. For many teams, this was their first time competing, but they did very well! 

At the end of the matches, teams who did well in the judging interview and the robot competitions were then recognized during an award ceremony and four teams advanced to the World Championship in Detroit in April. Organizers and teams celebrated the accomplishments of the tournament in style, with lots of confetti! All teams were able to compete with their robots and have a great experience. All volunteers were able to have a great experience, as well.

Photo of confetti at the FTC competition in Bucharest

Whitaker at the FIRST Tech Challenge in Bucharest with confetti in the background

After the competition had concluded, the Romanian organizers arranged a private tour for me to visit several castles and old churches in the Romanian mountains. It was a great opportunity to see the Romanian countryside. One of the most well-known castles was Bran Castle in the Romanian state of Transylvania. Although Bran Castle is known as Dracula’s Castle, I discovered the rich historical significance of it to the people of Romania. In addition to visiting Bran Castle, I spent time in Brasov, Romania, which is one of the oldest cities in Europe with traces of human activity dating back to 9500 BCE. It was great to walk along the plaza of such a historical city and to visit churches and monuments which are important to the Romanian culture.

Attending the FIRST Tech Challenge event in Romania was such an amazing experience. Although the challenge was the same, each robot was a unique design from the others. Even though there was a language barrier, we could communicate through robotics. The kids are very inspirational!