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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Sharing robotics and engineering: Giving back to local youth

Teaching kids about engineering through real-life examples is one way that Brent Denton gives back to the Champaign County community.

For Denton, that means sharing his love of engineering and robotics with local youth through the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics program.

Members of the FIRST Robotics Team, Ctrl-Z
Members of the FIRST Robotics Team, Ctrl-Z

The Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering graduate student, who is a member of Assistant Professor Mary Kraft’s research group, says he became involved with FIRST Robotics as a member in 2004. “I knew how much I gained from it,” he says. “I couldn’t help but give back to the program here at Illinois.”

Denton came to Illinois after graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison with bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering, chemistry, and applied mathematics and a minor in biology in engineering. He says he chose Illinois because of the large number of bio-chemical engineering opportunities. His current research focuses on characterizing and understanding cell membrane organization.

He says his involvement with the team and his science, chemistry, and engineering classes led to an interest in chemical engineering while in high school. “In my high school robotics team, I worked largely in computer aided design and eventually became the design team leader my senior year,” he said.

FIRST Robotics began in 1989 and was founded to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology with teams open to youth ages six to 18. Locally, Denton is a mentor for a FIRST Robotics Competition team #4096, known as Ctrl-Z, that includes 25 high schoolers who meet year-round.  The team is open to eighth through 12th graders who are challenged to raise funds, design a team brand, develop teamwork skills, and program a robot to perform prescribed tasks against a field of competitors.

“The focus of the program is to spread a passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) throughout the community – with the highest awards focusing on that and not on the robots,” Denton said.

He says working with the Ctrl-Z students is extremely rewarding. “It’s such an easy and enjoyable way to help teach kids. I enjoy being able to be a part of the team as it grows to be a larger part of the community.”

Denton is involved in the technical projects on the team including helping the students build an adjustable drive-train. He also is working with the group to implement a mechanism to vary the angle of the robot’s Frisbee shooter.

Each January a new challenge is unveiled where teams have six weeks to build a robot that weighs about 150 pounds; kits are provided by FIRST. “Ctrl-Z is a relatively new team, just beginning its third year of existence, but has been selected to compete in the elimination rounds of every competition they’ve attended,” Denton says.

In the off season, the team has weekly events and demonstrations and fundraises for the upcoming year. “There’s a great integration between professional, parental, and collegiate mentors on the team, and everyone is welcomed to join if they want to help.”

The team is comprised of 4-H members but is open to the community as part of a 4-H Special Interest (SPIN) Club. Team members come from Champaign, Urbana, and Mahomet schools, but is open to all students in Champaign County, who then become 4-H members to join the team.

“The students get involved because it’s just plain fun,” Denton says. “They all find parts of the team they really enjoy from programming robots and websites to physically building a robot to designing all sorts of elaborate systems.”

To learn more about the Ctrl-Z (#4096) robotics team visit team4096.org.

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