GeorgiaFIRST Robotics, a STEM-based organization for youth across the state, held its Peachtree District Championship at Mercer University from April 7-9. It was the first time the event annual event had been held at the University.

FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” is an international organization founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen.

GeorgiaFIRST is the state organization that nurtures passion for science, technology, engineering and math in students from pre-K to 12th grade. The goal of the organization is to excite youth about STEM careers, supply them with resources to succeed, encourage them to invest wisely in their educational endeavors, and build confidence in their leadership and communication skills.

GeorgiaFIRST hosts many competitions at different venues for various grade levels in order to offer hands-on learning opportunities. The Peachtree District Championship – essentially the state championship of high school-level robotics – challenges teams of students to build a robot to compete in various head-to-head challenges against other teams.

The focus of teams throughout the past competition season has been to “Make it to Mercer” for a chance to qualify for the FIRST World Championship, which will be held in Houston, Texas, April 20-23.

This year’s Peachtree District Championship featured 32 teams from across the state traveling from as far away as Dalton and Savannah. The average team consisted of around 20 students, with the largest team having 120. In total, about 1,200 of the best and brightest STEM students in Georgia converged on Mercer last weekend.

Karen Judd, public relations and media lead for the organization, noted that the competition is substantial in a number of ways. 

“The robots are big. They’re person-sized and about 120 to 140 pounds, but the kids make them from scratch,” Judd said. “They program, design and fabricate them all themselves with the help of professional mentors with science and engineering backgrounds.”

Mercer was chosen by GeorgiaFIRST to host the event due to its welcoming environment and commitment to STEM programming for prospective and current students. Judd said that the championship was originally intended to take place at Mercer in April 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic postponed in-person competition for nearly two years.

“We always want to connect students to resources, and what’s better than hosting on a college campus?” Judd said. “We have been welcomed with open arms not only by Mercer itself but the engineering and science programs. They’ve shown us nothing but great support.”

Judd believes this collaborative effort between the two organizations is the start of a longstanding and successful relationship.

“We’ve been gushing about Mercer since 2020, and I think this will be a good home for us,” Judd said. “Everyone has been so welcoming, and everything from the space to the help has been phenomenal. If we’re able to continue this relationship, that would be great.”

Dr. Kelly Holloway, assistant vice president for enrollment management, echoed Judd’s grateful sentiment regarding Mercer’s experience working with GeorgiaFIRST.

“Mercer University is honored to host the GeorgiaFIRST Robotics state championship on our Macon campus. Connie Haynes, CEO of GeorgiaFIRST, and her entire team of volunteers have been incredible to partner with, and the students in FIRST are bright, inquisitive and collaborative – all the makings of a Mercerian,” said Dr. Holloway. “Our shared mission of inspiring young people to be leaders in STEM fields makes this the perfect partnership.”

Judd believes the collaboration between GeorgiaFIRST and Mercer is a great opportunity for students to start thinking about their futures in STEM.

“For a lot of the students, this is their first time stepping on a college campus. We also have students who may not know this is an option,” Judd said. “So bringing a student to a campus as welcoming as Mercer has helped redirect what’s possible for them.”

Additionally, each year, the Office of University Admissions selects five students who are participants in FIRST to receive a $3,000 FIRST Scholarship to attend Mercer.

“Now we get to celebrate those students in person and recognize all of the incredible students who participate each year,” Dr. Holloway said.