Fundraising underway for local teen robotics team headed to global championship

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The 29 high school students that make up local robotics team Wired Wizards are hoping to collect enough funds to take on their peers across the globe at an international competition next week. Courtesy photos.
The Wired Wizards are raising money to travel to St. Louis, Missouri next week, where they’ll take on their peers from across the globe at an international robotics competition. Courtesy photos.

A local group of tech-savvy teens is hoping to put its robots in the ring against opponents from around the globe.

Wilmington robotics team Wired Wizards, is in the last days of a quickly organized online fundraising drive for an upcoming trip to the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition or Science and Technology) World Robotics Competition in St. Louis, Missouri.

The last-minute push for $35,000 was prompted by a surprise invitation in mid-April to attend the international event, founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen, that annually draws 900 teams of 20,000 young minds from 39 countries to face off in a sports-style arena. Armed with controls, the budding engineers must make their robots outperform others in a variety of tasks.

It’s a challenge members of the Wizards are ready to answer, having taken home one of two Engineering Inspiration Awards from against 32 teams at the NC State Championship in Charlotte earlier this month.

The award was quite the victory for the fledgling team, which formed in 2012 and competed at the state level for the first time last year. The Wired Wizards, which emerged out of UNC-Wilmington’s student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery, is now part of Port City Robotics, a non-profit dedicated to providing STEM opportunities to area youth.

The Wizards' robot will face off, arena-style, at the event, which annually draws 20,000 teens from 39 countries.
The Wizards will show off their robot’s skills, arena-style, during the event, which annually draws 20,000 teens from 39 countries.

And the strong state showing is what led to the international competition invite, said coach Ben Barbour, a UNCW computer science instructor.

“Winning the state competition was amazing for these young people,” he said. “Next thing you know we get the call that we have two weeks to get the robot ready, crated and shipped, and the team ready to get to St. Louis to compete against the world.”

Since FedEx is a sponsor of the competition, the Wired Wizards’ robot got a free trip to the event. But that’s not the case for the 29 students – from Laney, New Hanover, Hoggard, Wilmington Early College, Isaac Bear Early College, as well as home schools – and their coach and mentors.

“We’re such a diverse group,” Laney’s Sam Weaver said. “It’s been a learning experience like no other, and knowing that our little group is on the way to the world championships to represent the Wilmington area against teams from Israel, Canada, Germany and China is really cool.”

Considering the major annual competition will draw an audience of more than 40,000 be live streamed around the world by Comcast, Barbour is very much in agreement with Weaver.

“It’s the chance of a lifetime for these kids, so we’re working around the clock to make it happen for them,” he noted.

And it’s a way to further strengthen the Wilmington team’s mission to, simply, make science fun.

“Robotics have so many real world applications, and these games are the ideal way to put young minds in a fun situational learning environment that involves serious engineering,” Barbour said.

That’s not to say there is nothing at stake. FIRST competitors will have exclusive access more than $25 million in college scholarships.

The FIRST World Robotics Competition gets underway Tuesday. As of Friday morning, Wired Wizards had raised $22,140 of its $35,000 goal. Donations to the team are fully tax-deductible.