TROY – It’s basketball meets the Transformers with a dash of Dungeon and Dragons thrown in for good measure. Or, March Madness for nerds.
High School students who spent the last six weeks designing and building robots – from scratch – to perform a specific set of tasks laid out by officials at FIRST, the New Hampshire-based non-profit sponsor of the annual robotics competition, converged at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to see how their mechanical creations stood up against robots from other schools.
Locally, this year’s award winners are: Ballston Spa – Regional Chairman’s Award; Colonie – FIRST Dean’s List Finalist; Shaker – Regional Winner #2; Schuylerville – Regional Finalist #2; Shaker – Industrial Design Award sponsored by General Motors; Shenendehowa – Gracious Professionalism Award sponsored by Johnson & Johnson.
This year’s task was called FIRST Steamworks. Students were charged with building robots capable of collecting whiffle balls, which are high efficiency and low efficiency fuel depending on how they were deposited, to power an aircraft. Gathering enough plastic gears to crank the airship’s propeller. And then get on board the ship by climbing a rope before it takes off, or the buzzer sounds.
The finals featured the top eight teams who picked two “alliance partners.” The teams of three then competed against other teams of three and the team who racks up the most points moved on to the next round.
While competition is intense, there is not a “win at all costs” attitude by the mentors or team members. And that’s by design. One of the FIRST mantras is “coopertition” or “displaying unqualified kindness and respect in the face of fierce competition.”
Also, while the students do learn practical, tangible things like electronics, computer programing and the mechanical applications of making a battery operated robot, they also learn subtler skills.
“In this sort of environment you learn a lot of technical skills like programming,” said Unnas Hussain, a Shaker High School senior. “But you also learn a lot of teamwork skills and interdisciplinary cooperation so we have mechanics and designers and electricians and programmers and they are all different disciplines but we all come together to make one amazing robot.”
This year, the Shaker Robotics built a robot called “Stoker,” and while students don’t get any school credit for the hours of effort, technology teacher and team mentor Gary Bottini said some $500,000 in scholarships have been awarded to students who do participate. And that’s just a fraction of the $50 million funneled through FIRST for engineering scholarships.
“The whole idea is to give students a real life engineering experience,” he said while supervising students working on the robot at RPI. “It makes a difference. There are engineering colleges across the country that participate in FIRST.”
Locally, there were squads from Shaker, Colonie, Voorheesville, Shenendehowa, Ballston Spa, Troy and other area high schools, but they came to RPI for the regionals from as far away as Istanbul, South Carolina and Quebec. There are similar competitions happening all over the world at around the same time. According to FIRST, this year there are 460,000 students with 230,000 mentors and coaches on 52,000 teams from 85 countries.
Every team follows the same strict regulations regarding how much to spend on parts and where they can be purchased, play on fields with the same exact specs and every team is charged with the same exact tasks to complete.
And, presumably, each student will take away the same set of skills this year as they did after the first FIRST competition in 1992.
“Coming in I knew practically nothing about the electronics and the mechanical aspects and I got to participate on the mechanical team and use all the tools and help design and conceptualize the robots,” said Reba Silver, a home-schooled aspiring engineer on the Colonie High team. “To be given what seems like an impossible task: to build an entire functioning robot in six weeks. But in the end being able to do it and see the others do it as well. It’s just really incredible.”
Naomi Hertz, in her second year on The Voorheesville High Praetorians squad, said she wanted to be an engineer, but is now leaning towards other professions like creative writing.
“I still enjoy robotics and it give me a chance to learn some new skills,” she said. “I did most of the electronics this year, so if I get a faulty wire in my house when I’m older maybe I can fix it myself.”
Voorheesville is just in its second year and Hertz isn’t setting her sights too high this year either. But, one of the team’s mentors, Traci Vendervort, echoed the mantra mentioned above and isn’t necessarily in it just to win it.
“Frist Robotics encompasses so many areas and so many things the kids have to learn and experience,” said the engineer who is volunteering her time for the team. “Not just different aspects of technology like electronics and mechanical engineering and software but how to work with each other and how to work with other teams.”
Christian DeFranco, a Bethlehem High junior competing with the Dynamos from Colonie High, was more practical about his experience.
“I love the collaborative effort. It’s great to work with other people on a large project is a lesson for life,” said the aspiring engineer. “And the idea of making something new, out of nothing that can do something else is pretty awesome.”