Trinity College Robot Contests Help Spur Interest in STEM

ASME member John Mertens, the advisor for the Trinity College ASME student chapter, has been the administrator for the International Robot Contest for the last two years.

For more than 20 years, Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., has hosted an annual international robotics competition that inspires college and pre-college students alike to learn about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) while piquing their curiosity about the field of robotics. This spring, more than 300 middle school, high school and university students from across the United States — as well as Israel, Indonesia and China — traveled to the school to take part in the two-day competition.

More than 80 teams participated in the two competitions that made up this year’s Trinity College International Robot Contest: the Robowaiter Challenge event on March 28, where students tested the capabilities of robots they designed to help people with disabilities perform daily chores, and the Fire Fighting Home Robot Contest on March 29, where teams battled to see whose robot could most effectively respond to a fire alarm and extinguish a fire. The contests are open to students of various ages, from middle school students who competed in the junior category, to high school and college students who contended in the standard and senior categories, respectively.

At the end of the two days of competition, Anna Garner and Kate Shaffer, two students from Pennsylvania, were named overall winners of the event. Garner and Shaffer, who represented Mercer Area High School in Mercer, Penn., were awarded the Best Unified Robotics Performance (BURP) Award for their fire-fighting robot prototype Anouk.

The Trinity College International Robot Contests are supported by a dedicated group of faculty, students and alumni from the college.

Other teams who excelled during the contests included two teams from Talcott Mountain Science Center in Avon, Conn., who took first and second prize in the Robowaiter Challenge junior level category, and two Trinity College teams who took the first- and second-place honors in the standard category. In the Firefighting Robot Contest, teams from Talcott Mountain Science, Israel’s Ironi G University, and Indonesia’s Politeknik Negeri Bandung University were among the top winners in their respective categories.

ASME member John D. Mertens, PhD, who has been the advisor for the ASME student chapter at Trinity College for 25 years and the contest’s administrator for the past two years, sees his college’s event as a good complement to the higher-profile FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition. “We’re more grassroots,” said Dr. Mertens. “The team members — the students — do the work themselves and try to do it really inexpensively. Plus, the vehicles in our contests are all autonomous robots, whereas most of the FIRST robot activities are remote-controlled. We really don’t compete with FIRST. But, I think we both serve a great purpose, which is increasing interest in STEM.”

According to Mertens, students at his school get involved through a freshman elective class in robotics that requires the students to take part in one of the Trinity Robot Contests. This year, for instance, eight freshmen teams from Trinity competed in the Robowaiter Challenge. That experience is usually so stimulating that most of these students go on to join the Trinity Robotics Team, where they study more advanced robotics over the subsequent three years. In addition to taking part in the Trinity Robotics Contests, members of the robotics team also build robots to compete in the annual Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition (IGVC) that takes place in Michigan. In fact, a Trinity team will be heading to Rochester, Mich., in just a few days to take part in the event from June 5 to 8 at Oakland University.

For the Robowaiter Challenge, students design robots that perform simple daily tasks, such as delivering a bowl of cereal to a table, placing the bowl in a sink, and opening a refrigerator.

“Robotics is a wonderfully interdisciplinary engineering activity,” Mertens said. “It brings computer engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering together. It’s a fantastic educational experience, and the evidence is there. Many of our robot team alums from Trinity have gone on to get PhDs in engineering, and a significant number work in the robotics field." He added that the robotics activities at Trinity have put the school on the map internationally. “We’ve got students coming from all over the United States — as well as Israel, Indonesia and China — to be a part of the contest, and we’ve gotten international students to come attend Trinity simply because of the competition,” he said.

While ASME is not an official sponsor of the event, Mertens said it is supported by student, alumni and faculty volunteers from Trinity — many of whom are ASME members. Still, he would like to encourage more participation from other ASME members and leaders from the area. "I would love to get ASME more aware of the competition and more involved, by becoming a sponsor of the event, or sponsoring an award, or providing volunteers," he said.

Mertens is currently seeking engineers from the Hartford area to volunteer with the competition’s supervising committee, which meets several times a year to plan the Robot Contests and to advise the Trinity Robot Team as it prepares for the IGVC each June. Interested ASME members should contact Dr. Mertens at (860)297-2301 or by e-mail at To view the complete list of this year’s Trinity College International Robot Contest winners, visit