College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Iowa State juniors go from FIRST Tech Challenge competitors to judges

Mackenzie McCoy and Nicole Peyton stay connected to program that helped lead them to engineering

FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) provides middle and high school students with a competitive space for robots they program and build. After participating in the program for three years as students at Ottumwa High School, two juniors at Iowa State were happy to reunite with FTC – this time as judges during a substate qualifier.

Mackenzie McCoy, construction engineering junior, and Nicole Peyton, industrial engineering junior, agree that participating in FTC was part of the reason they chose engineering as their majors. Peyton knew she enjoyed the hands-on aspect of engineering, especially building a prototype, through participating in the challenge, while McCoy enjoyed figuring out what strategy would give the team the best robot.

Mackenzie McCoy and Nicole Peyton compete in FIRST Tech Challenge as part of the first all-girl team in the state of Iowa

The duo, which was part of the first all-girl team in the state of Iowa, says judging at the competition offers them a chance to give back to the a program that was so important to them.

“We know where the teams have come from to get to this level. As a student, you were afraid of the judges, but I wanted to be an approachable judge. I also wanted to see behind the scenes and stay involved,” said McCoy.

Students participating in FTC build robots using two modes of competition – autonomous and tele-op. Participants pre-program their robot to run in autonomous mode, which allows the robot to run by itself for the first 30 seconds of the competition. After autonomous, the robots switch to tele-op mode, allowing students to compete with other teams for two minutes using handheld controllers.

Challenges in FTC range from Bowled Over, which used bowling balls, racquet balls and crates for lifting, to Get Over It, where teams had to deposit PVC batons into movable scoring pods, as well as park their robot on a teeter-totter ramp.

When the program initially started in 2005, all teams qualified for state, but as FTC has grown in popularity across the state, students now participate in a qualifier to make it to state. From there, teams compete for regionals and then ultimately, worlds.

FTC will continue to grow in the next year after being selected as a Scale-Up Program by the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. Schools and other organizations now have the opportunity to apply for funds to implement the program into their school.

One thing that will stay the same, however, is FTC’s emphasis on gracious professionalism, which is about going above and beyond to reach out and help other teams. “The goal is to build a team, make friends across the state and be a friendly competitor,” Peyton explained.

Teams are also rewarded for reaching out to their communities, spreading the word about FIRST initiatives, and keeping track of their progress in their “engineering notebook” through Inspire and Outreach awards. Teams selected for the Inspire Award and the overall competition winner advance to the next round of competition.

McCoy and Peyton are grateful for the opportunity to stay involved in the program as alumni and encourage anyone to get involved. Coaches with technical skills are not the only volunteers needed. FTC also needs referees, hardware technicians and numerous other volunteering roles.  Learn more about this year’s competition, and visit FIRST Tech Challenge for more information about getting involved or starting a team.