AFMC Command News

AFRL senior leaders encourage Ohio youth at annual robotics state championship

  • Published
  • By Jeremy Dunn
  • Air Force Research Laboratory Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) — Middle and high school students joined senior Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, leaders at Hobart Arena in Troy, Ohio, March 9, 2024, to participate in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, Tech Challenge Ohio State Championship. Thirty-six teams across Ohio were tasked with building robots, as well as developing strategies for competition and collaboration with other teams.
“It's amazing to see what you're doing, and it gives me a lot of hope for the future,” said Maj. Gen. Scott Cain, AFRL commander, speaking at the event’s opening ceremony. “We're working on everything from artificial intelligence to hypersonics, and it's powered by people like you, people that have a passion for science and technology that want to make the future better.”
The FIRST Tech Challenge is a competition in which middle and high school students design, build and program robots to compete against other teams, learning science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, and teamwork in the process.

“The mission at FIRST boils down to inspiring young people to pursue STEM and to make it exciting, to make it fun,” said Brenda Ronnebaum, project manager for the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, or WPAFB Educational Outreach Office. “Collaborating with your competition and that communication piece helps us develop engineers who can talk with each other.”
The WPAFB Educational Outreach Office and AFRL sponsored the FIRST Tech Challenge to increase student awareness in STEM, aviation and aerospace to develop the scientific and technical workforce to meet future defense technological challenges.
“FIRST places an emphasis on collaboration and collaborating with your competition,” said Ronnebaum. “In fact, they coined the term ‘coopetition,’ which is cooperating with your competition, and it's one of the things that sets this program apart from others.”
The 2023-2024 FIRST Tech Challenge Ohio state championship saw an increase of nearly 150 student participants from the 2022-2023 season, with another 20 already slated for the 2024-2025 season aided by a grant for middle school teams. According to an ongoing Brandeis University study, students involved in FIRST are approximately two times more likely to pursue a STEM career or major in college. The impact on girls is even more significant, with an increase of roughly four times in FIRST students pursuing STEM.
“When the alum tells us what they learned or what was the most impactful, they very rarely tell us about the robots,” said Ronnebaum. “They talk about being able to speak to authority, being able to collaborate with others, accept criticism, [and] be OK with your idea not being the one that was selected.”
The format of the matches involved four robots, built by four teams of students selected at random and placed into two “alliances” of two teams each. The robots are constructed from materials specified in the game manual and must fit within a size template but can expand after the match begins. Matches were played in a 12-foot square field surrounded by a 12-inch wall with two tresses bisecting the play area. The matches started with a 30-second autonomous period where the robot followed pre-programmed instructions before human drivers took control for the remaining two minutes.
Scoring is accomplished by the robot collecting small, hexagonal pixels on one side of the play area and stacking the pixels on backdrops on the playfield’s opposite side. Pixels come in multiple colors representing different point values. Bonus points can be scored by the robots launching drones into a designated landing area outside the match area or with the robots parking in designated areas or suspending themselves from the midfield separators at the end of the match.
Examples of match play can be seen here and here.
The theme of the FIRST Tech Challenge for the 2022-2023 robotics season was “Center Stage,” emphasizing how art and creativity can work in conjunction with science and engineering. This season’s theme is meant to illustrate how science, technology, engineering, arts and math, inspire ideas, bold action and creativity.

“In this year's season, teams around the world are celebrating the role that STEM plays in the art and design and builds a world of endless possibilities,” said Clark Kelly, assistant dean of external relations and communications at Miami University, who served as emcee for the event. “In the 2023-2024 game, participants will raise the purpose of the power of design, creativity and precision, to create all new experiences.”
The top three performing teams at the tournament advance to the FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship in Houston, Texas, April 15-20, 2024. This year’s advancing teams are Juniper Robotics, from Sycamore, Ohio; Quantum Leap, from Mason, Ohio; and Fe2O3, from Xenia, Ohio.  
“[I]f you want to find a place in your future that can be a great help for you, whether it's in a uniform or as a civil servant, we're looking for that talent you have to make the future better,” said Cain.
For more information about the WPAFB Educational Outreach Office and the FIRST Tech Challenge, visit
About AFRL
The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 12,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit