The FIRST Robotics Competition is heating up, with teams from all over the United States thrashing it out for a place in the St. Louis April finals. This weekend past, Washington teens competed at Seattle-based CenturyLink Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks.
Dozens of teams packed the floor, making final tweaks to their bots, the outcome of many weeks hard work. “This competition is crazy,” said one team member. “I can’t get over the buzz, people just wouldn’t believe how crowded and electric it is here.”
Prior to the regional competitions, each robotics team has six weeks to build a robot—from a standard list of parts—which will perform certain tasks on the field. These tasks change every year. This year the bots had to maneuver basketballs into hoops during a two-minute-and-15-second match. The higher the hoop, the more points scored. In addition, the robots also had balance on bridges located in the middle of the field.
And something new added for the 2012 competition – a 15-second “hybrid period” at the beginning of each match in which robots operated independently of driver inputs using Microsoft Kinect. Baskets scored during this period were worth extra points.
The variety of robots this season is surprising. “It’s pretty amazing how everyone gets the same list of parts and the same challenge, but each robot is completely different, said Devi Johnson, a junior at Bellamine Prep whose team recently won the Portland regional competition. “It’s fun to look at our neighbor’s robot over in the next pit and see how they’ve put it together.”
“Our design is very different from the majority of the robots here this year,” said Mike Sinclair, who works for Microsoft and volunteers his time as a mentor for team Xbot. “I went with a catapult design to get the balls into the hoops. We can control the velocity that way.”
Mentors from education and industry come together every year to help school-age children build and deploy their own robots in the hopes that this experience will inspire and prepare them for a career in STEM related fields.
“It’s wonderful to see these kids trying new things and being inventive,” said Maggie Thorleifson, mentor for team Jack-in-the-Bot from Henry M. Jackson High School. “Kids who are good at math and science are often labeled as geeky. FIRST Robotics gives them a change to celebrate and show what they’re good at.
“FIRST nurtures the whole student. Some members of our team have designed classes to teach in our school classrooms. They teach programming, CAD and computer classes to other kids,” Thoreifson said.
This was Thorleifson’s forth year at the competition and she is clearly passionate about what she does. Taking her safety glasses off to wipe tears from her eyes, she said: “FIRST Robotics teaches kids how to perform at their best under pressure and how to own it, good or bad. And it’s a great lesson in team work. There’s a real sense of helping one another that you don’t see very much on sports teams. FIRST teaches kids that confronting and solving problems is a necessary part of life.”
And overcoming obstacles is something team Volt Eaters from Bethel High School can relate to. After their head coach and mentor sustained an injury halfway through the build season, the team went on mentor-less, showing up day after day on their own volition. “They showed up on time everyday to continue work on the robot,” said Keith Zanghi, a mentor from Boeing, who stepped in to help the team out after they lost their primary coach. “They stayed focused and kept plugging away by themselves. The team learned a valuable life lesson: how to stay with it when things get tough,” Zanghi said.
All the young people at the competition were clearly self motivated, passionate and excited about their work. “It’s amazing how many people don’t know about robotics, we need to get the word out,” said Halley Egnew of Bellamine Prep.
Her team-mate Keefe Murphy agreed: “The competition prepares young people for the future, this is where our world’s going and we need to step up the pace.” Murphy’s still trying to decide if he wants to study math, chemistry, engineering or geology at college. “Maybe I’ll do all four,” he said, only half-joking.
And FIRST Robotics can provide students the support and experience they need to go onto first-rate colleges around the country. “This program gives kids real-world experiences,” said Sinclair of team Xbot. “It’s exciting to see the amount of scholarships that go to team members. Because the kids show that they’re willing to put in the effort outside of school, scholarships to good schools become available.”
Some Xbot team members have already earned places at Stanford, MIT and the University of Washington.
The FIRST program also allows young people to connect with working engineers from various industries. Making connections and gaining first-hand knowledge and experience from engineers can be a huge boost to students. “The program allows students to connect with industry mentors that we wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to interact with,” said Emma Meersman on team Xbot, “I’ve learned so much more than I ever could have in school. I would have never known anything about engineers if it weren’t for this program.”
Team Xbot is associated with Franklin High School in Seattle, but meets as an after-school group at the Microsoft facility in Redmond.