Robot Games

The Red Arrows are often talked about when it comes to sports.  But another team competes in matches for the Red Arrows.  As the Lowell High School Robotics team concluded the building phase their work is not complete.  They will now enter competition phase as Team #3234 forms alliances with and challenges other high schools from around the state.  Don’t let mention of robotics fool you into visions of scientific nerds building a big toy.  For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) reaches students globally each year.  In Michigan Lowell is one of approximately 1,700 teams competing.  

The beginning of Team #3234’s robot taking shape.

FIRST Programs

The first competition was held in 1992 at a high school in New Hampshire.  Adults serve as coaches and mentors so robotics can inspire and educate regardless of age.  “…I think the thing that’s most surprising to people is that these kids really do build the robot and write the program that controls the robot.” says Assistant Coach and mentor Mike Maksymetz who became aware the team when his daughter joined.  After attending a competition he started going to meetings and eventually took on a leadership role.  “Mentors are here to help and offer suggestions, but the kids actually do 90% of the design and hands-on work.” Maksymetz shared with Lowell’s First Look.    Since 1992 FIRST has added programs encompassing various age groups.  Science, technology, education, and mathematics (STEM) concepts are taught in each of the programs.  Lowell has opportunities for students in two of the categories.  

FIRST LEGO Jr. focuses on students aged 6-10.  They’re introduced to STEM activities.  Through the use of LEGOs they use a familiar medium to build.  The current challenge for this group is Creature Craze where an animal is studied and then built using LEGOs.  

FIRST LEGO League is the next step.  Those in grades 4-8 research a real world problem and look for a solution.  Each August a new challenge is announced.  For the next school year Hydro Dynamics will be the theme.  Teams in this program must also build a robot out of LEGOs which is motorized and able to compete in a table top arena.  The Arrow Bots were formed in 2013 at Alto Elementary.  

FIRST Tech Challenge program is for those in grades 7-12.  It’s the younger sibling of FIRST Robotics.  Schools interested in FIRST but are looking for a cheaper and less time-consuming project often select this program.  Or it is used in middle school as a stepping stone to the final program.  It’s considered an introduction to learning how to use metal and aluminium to create a robot (which is smaller than those found in the final group).  Velocity Vortex is the theme of this year’s competition.  

Finally, the FIRST Robotics Competition program is international and involves high school students forming a team to compete.  Lowell Robotics Team #3234 is ready for competition to begin.

The Game

This year the Steamworks themed arena is where robots will compete.  The objective is to fuel a boiler and set up gears in order for a ship to take off.  A team receives bonus points if their robot is able to grasp and pull itself up on a rope in order to hitch a ride on the ship.  

The following video was part of the information each team received as an example of what the arena will look like and what each team’s goal will be during competition.

Scouting is also an aspect of the competitions.  Each school forms an alliance with other schools working together as a team during matches.  Individual teams earn points depending on what tasks are completed during their three minutes in the arena.  More points are awarded for harder tasks.  Working in alliances allows a team to focus on one task where they are proficient while the other team takes on a job using their strengths.  This year’s competition may have one team shooting balls while the other scoops them up to distribute into the boiler in an opening where a throw is not needed.  

The first 15 seconds of a match, or first period, robots are not steered or otherwise manipulated by a student driver.  Through programming teams are to distribute balls and gears, which are pre-loaded on the robot, to various spots in the arena and get back to what’s called a base line prior to the beginning of the second portion of the match.  In what’s called the telop period a drive team is manuevers the  robot.  Lowell’s team has one person drive the robot while another controls the shooting.  They can reload balls and gears at various stations then continue to place them in the appropriate places.  This second period lasts two minutes and 15 seconds.  The Kentucky Derby may be branded “the most exciting two minutes in sports” but the three-minute robotics matches can be considered one of the most exciting in high school competition.

Students work during the build phase.

The Reveal and Build Phase

Once FIRST Robotics released a manual for the 2017 competition the beginning of January competition officially began.  Numerous pages describe in detail a challenge each school must meet as well as rules about what may and may not be included as part of the build and programming components for the robot.  There are limitations on the amount of money a team can spend building their robot as well as how much the robot can weigh.  

Waiting for the game to be revealed and the manual to become available can feel like waiting for a new hit movie release in theaters.  There’s anticipation.  There’s waiting and refreshing a computer to see if information has been published online.  Once teams know what they need to accomplish and guidelines to follow it’s time to build a robot.  And it must be completed in six weeks time when it is then sealed until the first competition day.

However actual building and programming is not the first task.  Planning takes place as the team talks about an ideal design, best way to program, and who will do what task.  “We start by breaking the game down into separate tasks after the game reveal (at kick-off in January). From there different groups of students create prototypes of mechanisms that can accomplish those tasks.” says Head Coach Chad Philo of the team’s first steps.  After working on CAD designs construction will begin.  Some members of the team excel at the building aspect while others are more suited for programming.  But there are also areas which need to be filled allowing someone skilled in photography, videography, website design and maintenance, logo design, lining up sponsors and fundraising, marketing and more to be part of the team.  Students and mentors want people to know anyone is welcome to join the team.  FIRST also expresses the importance of students and mentors of any skill level being able to and encouraged to join their programs.

Lowell Middle School students work on a concept for distributing team buttons.

With no intermediate group for middle school students in Lowell those who fall into that age group who are interested in robotics are welcomed by the high school team.  Lowell Middle School participants were tasked with designing and building an apparatus to distribute buttons with the displaying the team’s logo.  Team buttons are often collected by individuals as well as school team.  Team #3234 has buttons from other teams acquired during previous competitions displayed in their work area.  

An Inside Peek

Lowell’s First Look was given an exclusive look at the Lowell Robotics team working on their robot.  We visited their work area about half way through the build portion of the season.  This year is Chad Philo’s first in the role of Head Coach but he has experience as a mentor in past years.  Lowell’s team consists of 22 registered high school students, 3 middle school students, and 8 mentors and parents.  

Members of the team prepare to test the robot’s ball shooting ability.

We were there to witness the team’s first attempt at testing their robot’s ball shooting capabilities.  The correct size shoot for launching had to be made, it had to be placed on the robot at the correct angle, and through programming the robot had to launch a ball.  The object was to get the robot to shoot as many balls as possible into a trash can stacked boxes a simulation of the boiler they’d see in their competition.  After some tweaks the robot began to become more consistent with its ability to get what look like over sized wiffle balls into the can.  When the first ball swished into its destination there were cheers.  While not everyone on the team worked on this particular aspect all eyes were on the testing phase.  Smiles and satisfaction spread as Team #3234’s planning and work paid off.

We witnessed a group of students testing the part of the robot which would grab and climb a rope at the end of match before time runs out.  Climb the rope too early and a team loses time scoring points from filling the boiler with fuel or placing gears.  Wait too long and there’s a chance the robot won’t grab and climb the rope in time.  The part of the robot being used to hold on had to be tested for how much weight it was able to lift as well.  

This year the team was not able to work as much with CAD drawings as they would have liked prior to construction.  Because of this some of the components on the robot had to be reconfigured.  “That’s part of the challenge when we only have six weeks to build a complicated machine.” explains Philo.  

But after six weeks of working two evenings during the week for a couple of hours and 6-8 hours every Saturday the build phase ended.  Goals were met.  A robot was built.  At the of the build phase team robots are off-limits until competition starts so no team has an advantage of being able to spend extra time perfecting any element.  It’s on to competition!

Competition and Beyond

Lowell’s team will have their first competition on March 24-25 at Mason High school in Mason.  Matches and an award ceremony take place between 9am-6pm both days.  Philo also informs, “Depending on the team’s performance, the Red Arrows may be in the quarterfinal, semifinal, and ultimate the final matches which take place after lunch on Saturday.”  The second competition where you’ll be able to see the Lowell team compete will be held March 31 – April 1 with the same schedule as the previous weekend.   Lowell’s team secretary senior Lauren White says this of her favorite part of competition, “I always love seeing all of the different robots that other teams have built. I think it’s amazing just how varied each robot is, yet they can still perform the same tasks.”  White is not only the secretary this year.  She is also involved with designing the team’s banner and pit.  

The entire process is a learning experience for everyone involved.  Students even teach mentors.  “I’ve learned that kids can collaborate and be really creative together. They accept each other’s input and don’t care about getting the credit as long as the robot works. I know a lot of adults who can’t do that!”  FIRST has coined the Gracious Professionalism idea which according to the introduction section of their manual “It can and should mean different things to everyone.”  Claire Maksymetz spent three years (she’s also the one who introduced her dad, now Assistant Coach and mentor to the team) on the Lowell Robotics team but this is her first year as a mentor.  When asked if there was anything else she’d like to add in addition to our emailed questions to the team her reply was, “Even though I don’t plan to go into engineering or mathematics, I’ve learned how to interact with others in a professional environment as well as how to conduct myself when I don’t always know what to do.”  Whether she knows it or not she is showing an example of Gracious Professionalism.  

Get Involved

Team #3234 raises its own money needed to build a robot each year.  The limit is $4,000 but Lowell has only spent a quarter of that amount.   They’ve been able to use things from robots used in previous years.  Once the build and competition season is over the team doesn’t part ways until the next game reveal.  They work on raising money, securing sponsors, and educating and promoting themselves in the off-season.  

“We’ve been very fortunate to secure a grant from the Lowell Education Foundation. In addition, several local businesses sponsor the team, including Litehouse and Source Supply Options.” says the team’s head coach.  When asked what would be most helpful for the team Philo replied, “We could really use another CAD-capable laptop computer for the students. We only have one currently, but there are several students interested in learning how to better work with the CAD software. We would need about $500 in order to make this purchase.”  

Members of the team participate in events where people can see their robot and ask questions.  They’ve participated at the Lowell Expo but have a competition that weekend this year.  Last summer part of the team showed off their robot’s skills along the Riverwalk during Pink Arrow Community Day.  

If you talk with students and mentors of the Lowell Robotics team you’ll be told the group isn’t just about robots.  It’s also not just about math and science.  And it’s not just for boys.  All are welcome.  If you’re a student or know one who might be interested, encourage him or her to attend a meeting or two.  The Lowell Robotics Team #3234 considers itself a family.  They’re there to support each other in addition to other robotics teams during competition.  They’re more than happy to answer questions about what their family role is and how much they like it.

Kids and adults will enjoy watching competitions.  If you’re able to attend one of the weekend events be sure to stop by Lowell’s pit and talk with some of the team.  Pick up one of their buttons as a souvenir.  They’re proud of their accomplishments and the Lowell community should be proud to be represented by this great team.  You can also check out their Facebook page for updates and information about meetings, what they’re doing throughout the year, and of course how competition is going.  Go Red Arrows!

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