Students with robots. (photo by Brian Butcher)

A months-long competition culminates this weekend as teams of high school students from across Iowa have designed, built and programmed roving robots to face off against each other.

Rebecca Whitaker, coordinator of the FIRST Tech Challenge through the University of Iowa College of Engineering, says the focus this year is on transportation and shipping — with hand-built robots.

“They’ll be picking up cargo which will be a series of wiffle balls and blocks or cubes and rubber duckies,” Whitaker says. “They will need to move the cargo into different shipping elements and the more complex of a shipping element that they are able to put the cargo onto, the higher points they will score.”

The finals of the contest on Saturday will gather about 500 Iowa students from 48 teams at the Xtream Arena in Coralville. Whitaker says the goals of the program go well beyond science, technology, engineering and math.

“We want to teach them STEM concepts, so designing and CAD and engineering, C&C machining, all of that stuff,” Whitaker says. “In addition, we also want to teach them business concepts as well. They have to do fundraising. They have to do a business plan. They have to do recruitment.”

The students are also learning important life lessons, like how to work as a team, how to effectively communicate with others, and how to handle failure — and success.

“It’s quite amazing,” Whitaker says. “The challenge was released in September and these teams have only had these short few months to really do everything from the design to the programming to the implementation to competing.”

The “FIRST” in FIRST Tech Challenge means: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The competition on Saturday runs from 8:30 a.m. through 5 p.m.