The robots are taking over - but not in the way you might think.
After-school robotics programs have grown so popular in Hamilton County that officials had to offer a new local qualifier round in the annual First Lego League competition. Hundreds of Hamilton County students will put their devices to the test Saturday at Signal Mountain Middle-High School. The event, set to run from about 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., is free and open to the public.
First Lego League is an international competition in which elementary and middle school students build robots from kits. Teams then compete against other students' robots, performing different tasks. This year's competition is themed "Nature's Fury," so students will have to maneuver around different natural disasters portrayed on a large mat. For instance, a team's robot may need to pick up plastic people from a hurricane zone and take them to a safe area. Or clear a runway after an earthquake so a toy plane can land.
Aside from manipulating the robots, children will have to give a presentation explaining their strategy. Altogether, the robotics program is aimed at getting children to think critically and solve real-world problems, said Scott Rosenow, a curriculum coach at Loftis Middle School who helps oversee dozens of robotics programs in Hamilton County.
"I see it as a real-world application of technology, science and math that students at the elementary and middle school are being introduced to," he said. "It kind of gives purpose beyond just the classroom. And I see this as a creative process. So much of it has to do with problem solving, sharing ideas and working with others."
Winners at Signal Mountain's first event will move on to a Cookeville round of competition.
Most of the public school robotics programs are sponsored by donations from Tennessee Valley Authority employees. Without that, Rosenow says these extracurricular programs wouldn't be possible.
"We spend almost $100,000 every year just to support this progression of programs in the Hamilton County area. That's a significant cost that the district would have a difficult time doing without this support."
Charlie Spencer, a senior adviser at TVA, has organized fundraising efforts for robotics and other public school programs for more than a decade. He says the robotics programs have grown from one school 10 years ago to about 30 elementary and middle schools. He said community members interested in starting a program in their school should come Saturday to learn more.
"I want the community to be aware this is going on so that hopefully some parents will say, 'Hey, this sounds pretty neat, what do I need to do to get this program in my school?'" Spencer said. "It's one of those really great programs in the community and I'd like for people to know it's going on."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at email@example.com or 423-757-6249.