Rookie engineers ready for robotics rumble

-February 28, 2014

It's tournament time for student-athletes around the United States as high school postseasons get under way, but it's also time for state championships for many robotics teams that compete in the FIRST (for inspiration and recognition of science and technology) program.

The FIRST Tech Challenge is a worldwide robotics competition for middle and high school students where teams design, build, and program robots to compete in games against other teams. The students receive a kit of supplies and rules for the robots and game, and then get to work building their robot and preparing for competitions. Local qualifying tournaments allow teams to advance to state and world championships.

Two teams from Pope John XXIII High School in Sparta, NJ, have taken the first step toward the championship by qualifying for the "Garden State Rumble" state championship tournament, which will be held on March 2 at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Proving that even those with little to no experience in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) activities can get involved in engineering with some motivation and support, one of the teams is made up of all rookies, who have been competing alongside the veteran team this season. The teams' coach Stephen Pendergrast, a science teacher at the school who has a masters in computer science, said it was important to separate the teams because of the different challenges they face.

"In a mixed team many rookies will defer major decisions to veteran team members, meaning they don't try out their own ideas, which is important for learning," said Pendergrast. "The biggest challenge is the shear amount of knowledge it takes to build a robot. Just understanding what the names of all the parts and tools are and how they function takes significant time. Now add to that mechanical techniques, programming, electrical systems, motor control, sensors, and all the rules of the game! It's a huge learning curve."

But that learning curve has not deterred these kids. "I came in with a little bit of knowledge, but it surprised me how much there is to know," said Sarah, a member of the rookie team. "I'm incredibly grateful for the experience robotics is giving me."

When the rookies were ready to design their robots, the lesson became keeping it simple – a familiar lesson even for professional engineers.

"Rookies almost always start by designing horrifically complex mechanisms, and often overlook simpler, more effective solutions," said Pendergrast. "An average engineer will solve a complex problem with a complex mechanism. A brilliant engineer will solve the same complex problem with a simple, clever mechanism."

While the teams were separate, their workshops were not, allowing each team the opportunity to benefit from the experience of the other.

"The rookies learn a lot of technical details from the veterans," said Pendergrast. "One veteran even held a programming workshop where he quickly got the rookie programmers up to speed in the highly specialized field of robot programming. But I think that the veterans also learn something from the rookies. Sometimes the veterans will get hung up by preconceived notions, but the rookies have no preconceived notions because this is all new to them."

At their most recent qualifying tournament, the "Robo-Joust" held on January 5, in Livingston, NJ, the rookie team, known as “The Game,” and the veterans, known as “Fatal Error,” finished 11th and 16th, respectively, out of 36 teams. Both teams got to compete in the final match as part of alliances chosen by the top teams.

Members of "Fatal Error" (in red) compete in the semi-finals at the Robo-Joust qualifying tournament.

Beyond winning matches and tournaments, FIRST teams can win awards that recognize their design skills, creativity, innovation, outreach efforts, and enthusiasm, and qualify them for the nearly 900 scholarships awarded through the FIRST Scholarship Program.

"There are more than $18 million in scholarships available for robotics team members this year," said Pendergrast. "In the past we've had students receive very generous awards, $40,000 just recently and full rides in a couple of cases in the past. Many colleges, especially engineering- and science-oriented ones, value robotics team membership in their applicants."

The Game won the Rockwell Collins Innovate Award at the Robo-Joust, which judges award to the team that has the most innovative and creative robot design solution, and Fatal Error was a runner-up for the Motivate Award.

Some of "The Game" rookie team members posed with their Rockwell Collins Innovate Award at the Robo-Joust qualifying tournament.

The FIRST Tech Challenge game changes every year and this year the teams played the "Block Party" game, which puts students' design and execution skills to work.

Four teams form two alliances to compete in each game, which requires two driver operators and a student coach, who communicates with their alliances, positioned just outside a 12-foot square playing field with 1-foot-high walls. Teams guide their robot to collect 2-inch square blocks from a designated area and place them in different locations on the field to score points.

The first 30 seconds of the game is an autonomous period, then the drivers take control for a two-minute period of play. To score, the robots can place blocks in baskets that sit on a pendulum shelf in the middle of the field, or in a scoring area below the shelf. Double points are awarded for scoring in a basket located above an infrared beacon. Teams can also score points by parking their robot on a ramp bridge on the field, getting the robot to hang from a bar above the bridge, or raising a flag located in the corner of the playing field.

The FIRST Tech Challenge combines the excitement, competition, and teamwork that make sports great with the opportunity to build things and get involved in STEM. Growing up in a time where there’s an app for just about everything, students need these programs more than ever.

"When we get our new team members at the start of each season, I always ask how many of the students have ever built anything.A couple of years ago a student looked at me as if he didn't even understand the question and asked 'does a paper airplane count?'" said Pendergrast. "I hope the students learn that there is value in using both your mind and your hands to combine the virtual world of ideas and computers with the real world of physical objects."

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