By Rebecca Schmitz
After strong showings at a series of qualifying matches, all three of Western’s Robotics Club teams—The Geek Gods, the Loose Screws, and Her Majesty’s Engineers—will compete in the state championship match in Richmond on February 28. This makes the fourth year that all of Western’s teams have qualified for states, an achievement that has become progressively harder to attain as the robotics challenge grows in popularity and more and more clubs from around the area begin to compete.
The matches are part of the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), which requires teams of up to 10 students to design, program, and build their own robots. The robots then compete head-to-head in a sports-style arena, with loud rock music flooding from speakers and enthusiastic students in costumes surrounding the 12 x 12 foot square playing field and cheering on their teams. The atmosphere is as raucous as any high school football or basketball game. “The FIRST organization wanted to create a sport for the mind and a feeling of excitement,” said Western’s Career Specialist Caroline Bertrand, who helped found the club four years ago.
Each team designs its own costumes, with the Geek Gods cloaked in headgear, togas, and armor; and the Loose Screws donning tool belts, hard hats, and safety goggles. Inspired by “steampunk,” a genre of science fiction and fantasy literature that focuses on the 19th century and features steam-powered machinery, male members of Her Majesty’s Engineers wear burgundy vests, yellow cravats, and top hats; the females wear big bustle skirts and white tops. Both genders wear a burgundy tool belt. “If you don’t look silly, you’re doing something wrong,” senior Josh Reid, lead builder for the Geek Gods, said with a laugh.
This year’s challenge, “Cascade Effect,” requires the robots to score points by racing around the arena and placing golf ball- and softball-size whiffle balls into three tall, bucket-style rolling goals. Robots had to fit into an 18-inch x 18-inch box at the beginning of the two-minute long match, but they could increase in size as the competition progressed, growing taller to grasp things up high or toss balls into the goal.
In such a celebratory environment, it’s easy to overlook the tremendous work these ninth through twelfth graders pour into preparing for each competition. While their usual practice schedule consists of two 2-hour sessions each week, the students and their mentors often work until 8 p.m. at night during the week of the competition. “We live on pizza and caffeine,” Reid said. It’s only natural that the late evenings have created a bond among the students. “You can’t judge each other when you’re stuffing your face with pizza and cake and building robots all at the same time!” said Reid.
Their hard work and dedication have paid off. Last year, the Loose Screws were ranked fifth in the state, and were the only team in Central Virginia to compete in Super Regionals against teams from the entire mid-Atlantic region. The Geek Gods were a runner-up to go to Super Regionals, barely missing the cut-off.
The club is headed by Tom Larson, who teaches computer-assisted design, and Bertrand. Both are dynamic, have an easy rapport with the students, and have put in countless hours guiding and mentoring them. The team also gets help from parents and volunteers. Last spring, local network forensics company nPulse (which was just bought by FireEye) “adopted” the club, and two of its employees, Whit Sheldon and Courtney Christensen, volunteer to help. Riley Chandler, a former nPulse employee who has since moved onto another job, also continues to volunteer. They typically spend four hours a week helping the students, but, during the lead-up to competitions, they volunteer for up to 12 hours a week.
With such a successful track record, it’s no wonder more and more students are eager to join this lively group. The club has increased to 30 members—nearly double the number who joined last year. Interest was so high that some students had to be turned away at Western’s club fair.
The students who do join have a wide range of skills and interests—not all are budding engineers. “We have drama people, we have artists, we have football players, and we have future med students,” Larson said. “Our diversity is our strength. If everybody were an engineer, we would not succeed. If you have same-minded people, you get the same results. Some people are good at design, some are good at programming, and some are good at mechanics. Some do our artwork and some handle the paperwork.”
One-third of the club members are girls. Seniors Hamilton Ibbeken and Tatum Norris appreciate that being in the club has taught them to work and communicate effectively in a field that still tends to be male-dominated. They are also proud of the example they’re setting for young girls. As part of its outreach efforts, the club has helped with “Girl’s Geek Day” at local elementary schools. “It’s fun to see the little girls get that spark of interest,” Ibbeken said. Norris says the club has helped her develop skills that will last well after her high school career ends. “It helps with interviewing skills. It puts you in a situation where you have to explain your work,” she said, referring to the competition’s requirement that teams explain their robots to the judges.
Since the program began at Western four years ago, it has expanded to other schools in the area thanks to the guidance and support of Bill Gardner. Gardner, an independent technical patent consultant, moved here from California in 2010 and quickly became involved in robotics at the schools, using his knowledge and expertise to mentor middle and high school students. After working with his oldest son’s robotics club at Henley, when his son moved up to Western he continued to help by mentoring the Geek Gods, which was Western’s newest team at the time.
Gardener is responsible for introducing the program to other schools in the area as well. “After the 2012-13 season, I saw how wonderful the program was and was surprised that Western was the only school in the area sponsoring FTC teams. In the spring of 2013, I decided to try to expand the program into the other public high schools in our area by finding and speaking with potential new mentors at Albemarle High School, Charlottesville High School, and Monticello High School. I also organized a ‘new mentor’ information session about FTC with Caroline Bertrand, Theresa Harriot [another founder of the group; she no longer teaches at Western], and the WAHS robotics students, where we showed potential new mentors the robots and what FTC was all about.” Western, Albemarle, and Monticello now each have three teams, Charlottesville High School has one team, and Henley and St. Anne’s Belfield have also started teams, bringing the total number of school-based teams in the area to 12.
Gardner has seen first-hand the benefits that students reap from the program: “Kids get to see their math, science, and technology skills applied in a fun and competitive way. They also get to work together in a team in a way that many academic extracurricular activities do not offer. Hopefully, this shows a lot of the kids that technical and engineering professions can be fun and causes them to consider technical and engineering career paths.”
Bertrand also believes that working together on long-term projects benefits the students in many ways: “It helps students find peers with common interests, it helps them identify and confirm their interests, and it helps them learn critical thinking, problem solving, and technical skills while applying their creativity.”
Not surprisingly, their biggest challenge has been learning to work together as a cohesive team. When the club was first formed, group discussions could get heated, with everyone trying to speak at once. Club president Dor Hananel, a founding member of the club, remembers those early days with a chuckle. “We had very passionate students, each with their own strong opinions,” he said. The solution? A talking stick—actually, a talking sword, made out of cardboard. “Whoever was holding the sword at the time could talk, and no one could interrupt them,” he said. Four years later, the sword isn’t used as often, but has still been known to emerge when discussions get too loud.
Because the club gets no money from the school, it is constantly raising money to buy parts and pay for competition fees and travel expenses. The club has held fundraisers at Sal’s Pizza and was outside Brownsville Elementary on Election Day, selling baked goods and coffee while showcasing their robots. “We are grateful to the local businesses and families that support our efforts,” Bertrand said. Companies who sponsor the teams have their logos displayed prominently on the robots and on the back of the club’s T-shirts.
At the competitions, teams are also judged on their community outreach efforts and other real-world accomplishments. Western’s outreach, which they carefully detail with text and pictures in a large binder to present to judges, is extensive. They have conducted hands-on workshops and demonstrations for younger children at local schools, worked with Henley’s Robotics club, and provided mentorship and demonstrations at robotics sessions at the U.Va. science and technology camps for rising ninth and tenth graders.
Clearly, the club is about more than just building robots. “We have the opportunity to not just design and build a robot, but to help the community and represent our school,” Larson said.
Bertrand believes that being part of the club will give students the skills to succeed in whatever endeavor they choose.
“Engineers tell us that these kids will be leaders in engineering school. Yet not all are going into engineering, some are going into artistic or other professions. This experience will help them grow in a fun and creative way.”