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USF grad returns to campus as robotics leader

Ken Johnson, a “frustrated engineer” who studied finance, returned to his alma mater to watch more than a thousand kids square off in robotics competition at the USF Sun Dome.

ALLI KNOTHE | Special to the Times

Ken Johnson, a “frustrated engineer” who studied finance, returned to his alma mater to watch more than a thousand kids square off in robotics competition at the USF Sun Dome.

TAMPA — High schoolers crowded around their robots, prepared with duct tape, zip ties and power tools.

"Because of Irma, we only had three weeks to prepare," said 18-year old John Gregor, a senior from Plantation's American Heritage School. His teammates, all wearing glasses or safety goggles, are making tweaks to their robot so it can more accurately shoot plastic yellow balls into a target about 15-feet above the ground.

Roboticon Tampa Bay held its fifth annual competition last weekend at the University of South Florida's Sun Dome. Competitors from kindergarten to 12th grade traveled from around the state to compete in the pre-season tournament.

About 1,500 players on more than 50 teams participated, with the younger players building and programming their robots using Legos and high schoolers utilizing drill presses, belt sanders and band saws. The event was organized by Eureka Factory, a Tampa company that develops creative events and programs around the area.

In the crowd Saturday was USF graduate Ken Johnson, who traveled from New Hampshire to attend the event, which is technically a preseason competition. Johnson has spent the last decade as director of the FIRST Tech Challenge, the engine behind one of the two high school level competitions held over the weekend.

"People are making the connection between economic growth and a well-educated workforce," he said. "It's these kids who will be the engine to that growth."

Although Johnson studied finance at USF, he describes himself as a "frustrated engineer" who has spent his career in technology-based business development.

Johnson's organization, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a New Hampshire nonprofit that was founded in 1989 to inspire young people in the fields of science and technology. The overall strategy has essentially focused on creating a sports program that facilitates students from around the world to compete in regional, state and international competitions.

Now it reaches more than 300,000 students annually through 100,000 volunteers. It's considered one of the world's leading STEM learning initiatives. It's even huge in China.

"It is just like a sport and the way they perform on the field is how they win or lose," he said, adding that the challenges are organized so that the teams need to apply skills such as math, science, mechanical engineering and programming.

The competitions involve periods where the robots are autonomous. Teams need to program robots to stack boxes in a particular way, using color-reading sensors and Android smartphones. Another competition requires the robots pick up and shoot balls into different targets. The games and layout changes each year.

"We piloted a drone competition probably five years ago in St. Louis," said Johnson. He said it wasn't scalable, since there needs to be secure barriers that prevent robots from flying out of the playing field.

As they design the challenges, the FIRST organizers are always considering the real-life application. Like designing robots for warehouses, understanding how a car's engine works, building an app or helping build parts for NASA.

Marissa Piner, a 17-year-old senior at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg, is the lead engineer on the school's robotics team. She recently completed an interview with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she would like to major in mechatronics engineering and potentially pursue a career in nuclear engineering.

"These are the kids that are going out to run the world," said Terri Willingham, event organizer and the director of Eureka Factory.

Contact Alli Knothe at

USF grad returns to campus as robotics leader 10/12/17 [Last modified: Thursday, October 12, 2017 2:45pm]
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