Spring typically marks the start of new sports seasons and the high school musical. But it’s also the time of year the Lowell Robotics Team is preparing for competition. The team will be competing in Muskegon on March 13th & 14th and Kentwood on April 3rd and 4th.
FIRST is a global program that encourages STEM activities. There are programs established for various age groups. The Lowell Robotics Team participates in FIRST Robotics. The beginning of each calendar year FIRST releases information about what competing teams will have to accomplish during competition. This year’s challenge is Infinite Recharge with a Star Wars theme.
Individual teams form an alliance with other schools. In each round there are six teams split between a blue and red alliance. Schools work together entering each round of competition to form an alliance. Some robots are stronger than others in various aspects so forming an overall competitive team is key to earn the most points and be able to advance.
Each round of competition consists of two and a half minutes of battle. The first 15 seconds robots are programmed to move on their own. The rest of the time a student driver takes over controlling the robot via remote control. Robots are tasked with delivering “power cells in the form of 7” dodge balls to “power ports” to score points according to Bryan Forney, one of two adult mentors for the team. A “shield generator” must be turned on to save a city. In order to do this the three robots from each alliance must hang from a metal bar that looks like a tall seesaw. The ultimate goal is to have all three robots from one team hanging so the bar is balanced.
Mentoring the Team
Forney is one of two co-lead mentors for the team. He along with Randy Stewart have guided students as they’ve built their robot. Forney has been involved with the team since his son joined the team as a freshman. Now in his third year helping out he volunteered to be an engineering mentor because there was a need for adult leadership. He also fills the role of drive coach. In addition to the two main co-lead mentors there are seven other adult mentors helping out the group. The team consists of approximately 10 high school students. Because of a lack of program at the middle school level, there are about 10 students from Lowell Middle School also helping with aspects of the team.
“The mentors serve as a resource for the team. We have quite a few kids new to the robotics team this year who have limited experience with power tools and building.” comments Forney. Mentors have been teaching safety and good practices in building. It’s up to the kids to come up with the design for the robot. Forney says the adults are only there to help execute.
Being part of the team isn’t only about building a robot. There’s also computer programming involved to ensure the robot does what it is told. Those building the body as well as the brain must work together to form a complete, working robot able to do the tasks needed to earn points during competition. There are also several rules to comply with and consider when building the robot. Certain restrictions, if not followed, could mean disqualification from competition.
Building a Bot
The packet teams receive at the kickoff of each season lays out specifics on what the robots will be asked to do during competition. In addition to building a robot that works and performing certain tasks, practice driving and problem solving if issues come up is important leading into competition.
The Lowell team has been spending time practicing with components they’ve built to scale. They’ve created the area where power cells will be given to the robot, the location where these cells will be delivered, and a bar to practice the ability to hang. While things are on track now, there have been issues throughout the build season.
“It happens every year. Ideas are great on paper, but when we start prototyping them we run into issues.” comments Forney. He gave the example of the power cell hopper component of the robot. This area is to hold balls which will be moved and transferred to another location where they are deposited. When the mechanism was built to get the balls from the robot to where they need to be deposited, belts kept shifting off pulleys. The team has also had to redesign their climbing mechanism several times in order for it to work well with other parts of the robot. These challenges and setbacks are part of the building process and give those on the team real life experience with engineering.
Additionally, team members learn from an entire process from start to finish. Once presented with rules for the competition discussions start around the design of a robot. Then a plan is made followed by prototyping and modifications where needed. Programming is usually the final step in the process and even then some minor changes may need to be implemented. Students must learn to problem solve and adapt in order to overcome what is thrown their way. Forney says one of the most important things the kids learns is perseverance.
Forney himself has learned that the kids he is mentoring each have their strengths and “have a creative way of problem solving”. He has enjoyed seeing them come together as a team to accomplish a common goal.
Looking Beyond Competition
There’s still about a month of hard work ahead for members of the Lowell Robotics Team. But then they’ll be able to look back on their season and have some down time before the process starts again in early 2021.
The team still meets once a week to work on the robot in the off-season. There is a meet in October where the teams likes to compete. There’s time over the summer and at the beginning of the school year to make tweaks without the stringent schedule they’re under when preparing for their main competitions of the year.
Lowell has had a robotics team since its founding in 2008. The 2016 season was the team’s best when they qualified for the World Championship which was held in St. Louis that year. With younger students on the team in recent years, the team has been working on rebuilding the program. That doesn’t make members of the group work any less as they look to compete. Each year’s team helps build a robot and in the process friendships are also made.
See the Team in Action
Lowell Robotics Team #3234 will be competing in two upcoming events. The first is set to take place this weekend at Orchard View High School in Muskegon. Lowell will be competing in the Muskegon District event on March 13th and 14th. They’ll have a couple of weeks off and will be back in action at East Kentwood High School for the East Kentwood District event, participating on April 3rd and 4th.
Editors note: It was announced on March 11 that FIRST in Michigan has postponed events until further notice. The Lowell team will not be competing in Muskegon or Kentwood.