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Army Ants wrap up an incredible year of FIRST Robotics

A tall robot pushes an orange ball.

The Army Ants competed the FIRST Championship in April in Houston by finishing in the semifinals of the Rocket City Regional in Huntsville, Ala. Photo courtesy of Kevin Gillis.

Army Ants, Columbia’s FIRST Robotics team, recently wrapped a tremendous academic year.

FIRST Robotics builds STEM interest among students nationwide and in several additional countries through regional and national robot competitions. And the Army Ants, a team comprised of local high school students, performed well at several major events this year, including:

  • Qualifying for the FIRST Championship in Houston in April
  • Finishing in the semifinals of the Rocket City Regional in Huntsville, Ala.
  • Earning a $5,000 grant from NASA during their time in Huntsville by winning the Engineering Inspiration Award in recognition of their STEM community outreach

The organization includes nearly 40 students from Columbia Public Schools alongside several adult mentors. That’s where Mizzou Engineering comes in. Biomedical, Biological and Chemical Engineering Professor Kevin Gillis has been a mentor for the organization since its foundation in 2011, including spending several years as its chief mentor.

Gillis was proud of the work the team did this year.

“We have just great students, including four National Merit Scholars,” he explained. “Participating in the championship was quite exciting for the students.”

Gillis’ role with Army Ants began when his eldest son joined the inaugural team. When Army Ants needed to relocate their workspace from Columbia Area Career Center in 2013, the team began calling MU’s Agricultural Engineering Building home, and the College of Engineering has provided some financial and logistical support for the independent organization in the years since.

“As we were growing here, I started to involve the College in helping out, and Assistant Dean Tojan Rahhal helped us in our efforts to find and recruit underrepresented minority kids.

“(Associate Dean Hani) Salim and the recruitment office certainly have recognized the value of FIRST Robotics in recruiting top students. … We want to start having regional competitions here in Columbia. We’re centrally located, so we’d like to have the state championship here in Columbia and have the College be a part of that.”

The goal is to help students of all ages gain an appreciation for STEM fields and education. The Army Ants frequently hold camps — both free and paid — for younger students interested in robotics, and the organization works diligently to increase participation for students typically underrepresented in STEM fields, which helped them land an Engineering Inspiration Award for the second consecutive year.

They also receive instruction and mentorship from the Mizzou FIRST Alumni Association, a student organization comprised of MU Engineering students who participated in FIRST in high school.

“It naturally attracts the best and brightest high school students,” Gillis said. “We are also working on how to be better at recruiting underrepresented groups.”

The goal is to grow interest in STEM across all age groups, and Gillis said he views the Army Ants program as being almost a “K-16” endeavor. The Army Ants’ results both in competitions and in competency — both in technical and soft skills — showcase FIRST at its finest, with several seniors planning to major in STEM fields at world-class universities, including MU.

“What they do in the classroom is of course very important. But what FIRST does is allow them to see how science and math as well as art and marketing can all come together,” Gillis said. “It’s kind of like bringing together a small business, but we shouldn’t discount the technical aspects, also. They’re learning critical skills.”

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