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Nick Gradoville, left, and Ross Friedman, students at Kuemper Catholic High School in Carroll, prepare their robot for competition at the first IT-Olympics at Iowa State. Photo provided by Nancy Peterman.
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Robots, games, hackers: first IT-Olympics at Iowa State celebrates computer smarts
AMES, Iowa -- They're building LEGO robots that push, flip and otherwise fight each other for a sumo win.
They're creating video games that teach a science, technology or math concept to middle schoolers.
And they're building computer networks they must defend from teams of hackers.
About 200 students from 25 high schools across the state are wrapping up their preparations for the first IT-Olympics at Iowa State University. IT-Olympics' three events -- robotics, game design and cyber defense -- will be contested from 1 to 5:30 p.m. Friday, April 25, and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, April 26, at Hilton Coliseum. The events are free and open to the public.
Competitors include teams from Carroll, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, De Witt, Iowa City, Mount Vernon, Nevada, Newton and Waterloo.
The event is designed to show students that information technology is a field that can lead to interesting studies, good jobs and creative challenges.
"These are fun jobs," said Doug Jacobson, an Iowa State professor of electrical and computer engineering and one of the organizers of IT-Olympics. "These are also jobs that make a difference."
The competition is part of a larger Iowa State program called IT-Adventures. The program is trying to build interest in computer careers by establishing high school information technology clubs across the state. The program provides free computers, mentors and learning materials. So far, schools have established 40 of the IT clubs.
Kuemper Catholic High School in Carroll is sending nine students and three teams to the IT-Olympics. Three students are building a sumo robot. Three are designing a game. And three are building a computer network they'll defend from hackers in the cyber defense competition.
Nancy Peterman, who teaches business and computer courses at Kuemper, said this will be the school's first try at a computer competition other than some programming events. And while the teams have a little bit of apprehension about trying something new, she said the preparations have been good for her students.
She said they've learned new software. They've tried new projects. And they have an event to get excited about.
"The students were already interested in computers," Peterman said. "But this competition expands their exposure to computers. It helps give them an idea if that's a direction they want to go."
Nick Gradoville, a junior at Kuemper, is part of the school's robotics team. He said the team's machine runs on tracks and looks a little like a bulldozer. It's equipped with sensors that can find and track competing robots. And it's very good at getting a win by lifting its competition off the ground.
"I'm loving this," said Gradoville, who's thinking about studying computer science in college. "This is just something different. And it does teach you how to build a robot and the technical side of robotics."
Brandon Heuton, another Kuemper junior, is working on the school's game design and cyber defense teams. He spent a recent morning working on a question-and-answer game geared toward middle school students. The game will ask a science question and present a choice of three answers. A character rewards correct answers with a happy face; wrong answers get a head shake.
"It's been interesting and fun," said Heuton, who's thinking about a computer science or information technology major in college. "I've been able to learn stuff I never thought I could."
Keeping students such as Gradoville and Heuton interested in information technology is important to Iowa and the United States.
A 2006 report by the National Academies, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," notes that China graduated an estimated 350,000 engineers, computer scientists and information technologists in 2004. The United States graduated an estimated 140,000 students in those fields that year.
In Iowa, a 2005 report prepared by the Battelle consulting and research firm for the Iowa Department of Economic Development said the state should grow its small information technology sector to support and advance the state's economy.
Organizers say the IT-Olympics will help students understand there's a strong demand for workers with computer and technology skills.
"Part of this event is to show students there is a wide diversity of employment opportunities in information technology," Jacobson said. "From Garmin GPS to Tyson Foods to Cargill to General Mills, the employment needs are quite diverse."
The first IT-Olympics at Iowa State will bring about 200 students from 25 high schools to Hilton Coliseum April 25-26. They'll compete in robotics, game design and cyber defense. They'll also learn there's a future in information technology.
"These are fun jobs. These are also jobs that make a difference."
Doug Jacobson, an Iowa State professor of electrical and computer engineering and one of the organizers of IT-Olympics
"The students were already interested in computers. But this competition expands their exposure to computers. It helps give them an idea if that's a direction they want to go."
Nancy Peterman, who teaches business and computer courses at Kuemper Catholic High School in Carroll
"It's been interesting and fun. I've been able to learn stuff I never thought I could."
Brandon Heuton, a Kuemper Catholic High School junior who's working on the school's game design and cyber defense teams