The Army Ants, a Columbia robotics team, won the Design Award in the FIRST Global Innovation Challenge on Wednesday. Made up of 35 high school students, the Ants have won awards on the regional, national and now global level.

The 12 girls and 23 boys on the team include home-schooled students and students attending Tolton Regional Catholic, Rock Bridge, Hickman and Battle high schools.

Every year, FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — hosts a global robotics competition in which students in three age and grade groups design, build and program robots.

This year, because of the pandemic, teams designed innovative prototypes instead of robots. These prototypes were all created to help people regain or maintain optimal physical or mental health.

*Out of 883 teams, the Ants won for best design in the competition. They earned the Design Award for their prototype of SPOCKS, Sensor Platform for Orthopedic Compliance following Knee Surgery. SPOCKS is a device to help patients work on rehabilitation exercises after a knee replacement surgery, said Kevin Gillis, Ants mentor and professor of the Biomedical, Biological and Chemical Engineering Department.

The Ants created a working prototype that included a business plan, a business pitch and a mobile app.

“We are planning to continue the development of our product,” Ants student leader Brent Brightwell said. “We put so much work into this product, and it has the potential to help a lot of people.”

**Brightwell and the team captain, Sophia Eaton, led the team in brainstorming ideas, conducting interviews, doing presentations and contacting experts to prepare for the global competition.

The SPOCKS device measures the knee’s range of motion and helps patients relearn muscle control and weight bearing with sensors integrated into compression stockings. It’s intended to guide and encourage patients to carry out their prescribed exercise regime after surgery, Gillis said.

“(Participating in the innovation challenge) has been a really rewarding activity,” said Anand Chandrasekhar, MU professor of biological sciences and Ants mentor. “We want to show people that this (being on the robotics team) is for everybody, and it’s something to get excited about.”

  • General Assignment reporter, Summer 2021 Studying publication design Reach me at, or in the newsroom at 573-882-5700

  • Assistant city editor, summer 2021. Former education reporter, fall 2020. I am a graduate student studying magazine editing. Reach me at or on Twitter @GallantHannah.

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