by Dot Cannon
“This is a varsity sport for the mind,” said FIRST® Robotics Education and Technology Consultant Eileen Kahn.
Friday morning, March 24th, had arrived at Cal State Long Beach’s Walter Pyramid.
So had sixty student robotics teams–including participants from Hawaii, Arizona and Chile.
And everybody was preparing and practicing for the Los Angeles Regional FIRST® Robotics Competition, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, March 25th and 26th.
FIRST® Robotics is billed as “a major sporting event…with a mechanical engineering twist”, on its website. It is, technically, a four-day international high school competitive robotics event. Each team builds its own robot, from a kit they all receive at the same time.
This year, teams received their kits in January. From that point, they had six weeks and three days to design, build and program their robots. At a specified time, all construction must stop–and teams must bag, tag and photograph their robots for transportation to the arena.
Then, on competition days, robots vie in traversing an obstacle course, throwing projectiles at targets, and climbing.
However, “four-day competitive robotics event” is a term that falls far short of doing justice to FIRST® Robotics.
“We have a mantra that is called ‘gracious professionalism’,” Eileen said. “If a (team’s) robot breaks down, other teams will help fix it. ”
In addition, she said, teams will help one another if parts are needed. This year, one competing team from San Diego, the Holy Cows, are bringing along a mobile machine shop, for that purpose.
And the highest honor in FIRST® Robotics–the Chairman’s Award–is given for much more than technical skill.
Eileen, who has started a number of FIRST® Robotics teams since getting involved fourteen years ago, says Chairman’s Award recipients are chosen on the basis of community service, outreach and sharing their knowledge of robotics with younger students. (“It’s about) your being a good person, doing things for others,” she explained.
Anaheim-based Team 3309, the Friarbots, have firsthand knowledge in that area. They’re the winners of the Chairman’s Award at the recent Arizona North Regional competition, in Flagstaff!
“I was fortunate enough to be on the team that competed and presented for this award,” said team member Brandon Caparelli. “One thing that we did was ‘Business Rockstars’, where two of our students, our Vice-President of Public Relations and our President, talked with announcer Pat O’Brien about what we’ve done, and that was streamed to over one million people, across the country.”
While the majority of teams we saw represented one high school, Team 980, the ThunderBots, is a community team. “We draw students from over eleven different schools in the L.A.-Burbank-Glendale area,” explained team captain Jacob Schlossman. “All (these students) come together, some traveling from over forty minutes away, just to get to our build site, to work. So all of our students are very dedicated.”
History, innovation and community
FIRST®, which is an acronym for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”, is a nonprofit organization incorporated in 1989. The FIRST® Robotics Competition debuted in 1992, with twenty-eight robotic competition teams in a New Hampshire high school gym.
Since then, FIRST® has expanded to four technology-based events–in which more than 400,000 young people participate, annually.
Every FIRST® Robotics competition has a theme. Past themes have included 1992’s “Maize Craze” (robots had to navigate a playing field strewn with corn!) and2016’s medieval-themed “First Stronghold™” where competitors navigated moats and portcullis in an attempt to breach their opponents’ castle towers.
The 2017 theme? Steampunk–and the 2017 title is “FIRST® Steamworks”!
In addition to technical expertise, teamwork and professionalism, FIRST® Robotics is giving participants a background in both public speaking and entrepreneurship. Students raise funds to design, build and program their robots.
“Some teams can spend up to $50,000 in a year,” said Kelly Crabtree, of Team 4201, the Vitruvian Bots. “(So) we have to get a lot of sponsors.”
A sense of community was evident during a walk through the preparation area. Unlike most sporting events, FIRST® Robotics is highly inclusive–with arts and humanities members welcome among the science folk.
“We take in everyone,” said Karen, who is Culver City High School’s Team 702‘s CAD designer. (And pictured here with an award her team, the Bagel Bytes, recently won for their robot!) “When I first came onto the team, I didn’t know the difference between a Phillips and a flathead screwdriver. I really started from nothing, and everyone was so helpful. When I didn’t know something, I could ask, and anyone would give me the answer without a second glance.”
Karen says Team 702, the Bagel Bytes, have something special on their robot: an autonomous auto tracking system! But the Bagel Bytes, who are proud not only to have LGBTQ team members on their crew but to have almost a 50/50 male-to-female ratio, aren’t going to keep the technology to themselves.
“It’s all open-source,” Karen explained. “We have it on our team website, and we have it on Bitbucket.”
The best kind of robotic “reach”
Eileen says FIRST® Robotics’ reach has extended far beyond even the goals of inspiring young people to challenge themselves and find their passion.
“These guys have been in (FIRST® Robotics) for eighteen years,” she said, introducing the Hawthorne High robotics team, Team 207, Metalcraft. “They’ve changed the whole culture of their school,,,it’s in a very disadvantaged area, and yet they’ve changed the whole culture of their school, (and) their community.”
Metalcraft team member Nicole Henriquez says the graduation rate of Hawthorne High, over the eighteen years her school has participated in FIRST® Robotics, has jumped to 98%. Hawthorne High now has a school of engineering, and Nicole says some of the alumni currently work at SpaceX.
Nicole said she had just begun participating in FIRST® Robotics this year. Asked about her own future goals, she replied, “I think this has shaped a lot of what I want to do. It’s so great to have (hands-on training). We’ve been having LTW classes, so we’re able to have twelve college credits by the time we get out of high school. And if we take one more extra drafting class, we’re able to have an Engineering certificate.”
“I’ve been in the Academy ever since freshman year,” she said. “From the beginning, when we first started (Hawthorne High’s School of Manufacturing and Engineering), we only had one percent (of female students). Now it’s up to 25 percent.”
“I think the best experiences I’ve had are not just when I’m building the ‘bot,” commented Antony Suarez, of Team 4019, Mechanical Paradise, which is Bridges Academy’s team. (Bridges Academy, he explained, is a twice-exceptional school: its students are highly gifted, with learning disabilities.) “Of course, it’s a lot of fun, building the ‘bot and watching it go out there and do the things that we built it to do.
“But I think really, it’s just talking with the people on my team, having the ability to converse about something that I enjoy.”
Something else he enjoyed, he said, was getting to be versatile. In the past, Antony worked with tools, and on the robot’s wiring. This year, he’s on the PR team, did fundraising and “a little bit of website design”.
He even helped to make these new Hawaiian shirts for the team!
Nisan Tamam, captain of Van Nuys High Tech L.A.’s Team 4 Element, summed up the experience.
“We’re a family, basically,” he said. “Everything that happens, there’s no ‘I’s’ or ‘me’, it’s all ‘we’ in this. So whether the robot breaks or we win or whatever, it’s all one team. I think that’s the most important part, and that’s how we got through the competitions.”