The seven students and their adult coach of the Rebel Robotics team pose in their orange team shirts with the same color banner showing the team earned the Inspire Award at the 2023 Iowa FIRST Tech Challenge Championship.
The Rebel Robotics team smiles for a picture after receiving the Inspire Award at the FIRST Tech Challenge state finals. Photo courtesy of Charlie Henkel

Norfolk’s high school robotics team is working to draft legislation that would make FIRST Tech Challenge a Nebraska School Activities Association sponsored sport.

The students are in the process of looking at the nitty gritty aspects of drafting legislation. Rebel Robotics, in the first week of April, met with Mike Flood to discuss the reality of getting a bill passed and getting NSAA to sponsor FIRST Tech Challenge, known as FTC.

FTC is a robotics competition where high school students build and program robotics while also participating in outreach initiatives that promotes STEM in the community.

“The bill probably won’t happen because of the way the NSAA and Nebraska legislature are,” said Norfolk High sophomore and Rebel Robotics member Emmet Haake. Rebels Robotics is an FTC team made of teenagers from the Norfolk area. 

Despite the slim chances of Rebel Robotics’ legislation being passed, the team still followed through with their efforts. In fact, the team still plans to meet with the NSAA later this month. The goal of this meeting is to discuss whether the NSAA has the means to host FTC competitions in the first place, according to Haake.

“If they cannot be putting on their own robotics competition, we don’t know what their interest level will be,” Haake said. 

Having the NSAA promote FTC would be ideal so more teams can and would be willing to participate. Without this sponsorship, it creates extra work on FTC teams’ end to find companies in Nebraska to fund new FTC teams according Henkel.

FTC is new to Nebraska and is currently growing in popularity amongst high schoolers in the state. Currently, it is not a school sponsored event so teams have to fund themselves. In fact, there is not a Nebraska based FTC league, so teams travel and compete in Iowa’s FTC league.

Competition for FTC has two major aspects that students compete in. There is a robot competition and outreach activities teams partake in. For the outreach portion, Rebel Robotics is attempting to draft legislation with the mentorship of Nebraska Congressman Mike Flood. The legislation would make FTC a school sponsored league in Nebraska. 

According to Rebel Robotics member Emily Miller, an FTC team from Waterloo, Iowa inspired the idea.

H20 LooBots informed Miller and her teammates that a previous Iowa high school team had worked to make FTC a school sponsored activity 10 years ago. Since Rebel Robotics was a Nebraska based team, they were the perfect candidate for this idea. 

“The main thing we are looking for is guidance and support,” Henkel said.

Official NSAA sponsorship is how a lot of Nebraska high schools start sponsored activities. Getting the NSAA on board would help the school be able to fund FTC teams and would give the program more publicity. Most people in Nebraska do not even know about FTC, which makes it difficult to start teams and find mentors for students.

“About half of our team goes to the public or catholic school and there was nothing in school about us going to state. But the swim team went to state, and they announced it on the speakers and had pictures on the wall. The whole school was celebrating,” Henkel said.

In March, Rebel Robotics qualified for the FTC World’s competition. The team was awarded the Inspire Award, one of several different awards available at FTC competitions. It’s given to the team who best embodies all aspects of the FTC program, including the robotics, presentation and outreach the team completes during the FTC season. To go with the bragging rights, the Inspire Award provides a ticket to the FTC World’s competition.

Rebel Robotics traveled to Houston on April 19 to compete in the world competition. This was the team’s second time at  a FIRST world competition. When the team competed in First Lego League before advancing to FTC, they qualified for worlds. 

In order to be competitive in Houston, the Norfolk robotics team focused on improving their robot and outreach efforts. According to senior member Charlie Henkel, the team has redesigned their robot by changing coding and physical aspects. 

“Just doing it again when I’m older and having that in-depth conversation was just really fun with other teams,” said Nick Miller, sophomore Rebel Robotics member.

In Houston, Rebel Robotics was awarded the first place Think Award. This is given to the top 16 teams out of 200. According to Henkel, they learned a lot and made many memories with the other teams from across the world.

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Rebel Robotics partner’s with another team compete against two other high school FTC teams in Houston, Texas. Photo courtesy of Rob Haake

“We always like to bring a world map and then have teams put a pin on the map of what countries they’re from and it’s really cool to see the map filled out across the world,” Henkel said. 

This summer Haake plans to travel to middle schools across the state to promote and start teams at the lower level. According to him, in order to get more schools involved at the high school level, teams must be established before high school. Haake said FTC would be beneficial to high schools across the state to have as a school sponsored activity due to the benefits regarding students’ careers. 

In 2020, the NCAA reported that out of 540,769 high school men’s basketball participants only 3.5% compete in college. Only 52 players were drafted to play professional basketball. By comparison, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted there would be nearly 140,000 new engineering jobs between 2016 and 2026.

“None of the kids that are in basketball are really going to statistically go on to make a living playing basketball, and that’s true for any sport,” Haake said. “You look at robotics and there are millions of job opportunities.”

Blaney Dreifurst is a Journalism student with minors in Sociology and Business and Law. She is on a pre-law track with hopes of attending law school in Fall 2024.