In the Western Albemarle High School cafeteria well over 50 students gathered in huddles around tabletops strewn with nuts, bolts, sensors, wheels, toolboxes, laptops and, yes, robots as the WAHS robotics club hosted a scrimmage and collaborative get-together for area schools Jan. 23. Chattering and chuckling, the kids tinker with what look to be Erector Set behemoths. Standing about a foot-and-a-half long, high, and wide, the units are sophisticated and complex, featuring cameras, motion sensors, drive chains, pulley systems, batteries and a slew of other technological gizmos.
Attending are the high school’s three teams, two squads from Henley Middle School, and three teams bussed in from Albemarle High School.
Cupping his mouth, an adult administrator called out over the din: “Plaid Peacocks!” A trio of Henley middle-schoolers—girls dressed in matching bright blue shirts with peacock feathers in their hair—carried their robot to an arena-like 12 x 12 foot square setup near the door of the cafeteria’s lunch-line. Surrounded by a foot-high foam wall, the square has ramps in each of its corners, big push-button sensors on all sides, and two pronged, spin-able, upward-facing plastic buckets resting side by side atop a two-foot stand in its center. Placing the robot in the arena, one of the girls switched it on—with a whirring sound, a pair of metal arms extended from the unit’s body, revealing cupped cymbal-shaped appendages designed for grabbing. Meanwhile, another Peacock scooped up what looked like a video-game controller and commenced to steer the wheeled robot toward a large medicine ball sitting alongside the buckets.
“So normally there are four teams competing at once,” explained Caroline Bertrand, the program’s administrator and coach of the WAHS varsity robotics team, Her Majesty’s Engineers. “Matches are timed and the robots start in corners, with teams scoring points by completing tasks like pushing buttons, picking up and transporting smaller balls, or placing larger or smaller balls in the buckets.”
Back in the arena, the Peacock’s controller moved the team’s robot into position and, with the push of a button, the cymbals clamped together, grasping the ball. Another button-stroke and wheels situated in the unit’s shoulder region began to spin, contracting hundreds of tiny tendon-like rubber-bands, raising the mechanical arms and ball to a height just above the buckets’ prongs. As the robot rotated toward the bucket, things got tense. The controller narrowed her eyes; her teammates clenched their fists muttering, “Come on, come on…” Other students wandered over to observe as the ball inched its way over the opening—only, at the last possible moment, it slipped. With a metallic clang the cymbals crashed together. The girls spun on their heels, rolled their eyes, flung their hands into the air. A collective sigh rippled through the room.
“Our season starts in September and, for the better teams, can run into late-February, so that gives our students the opportunity to evolve their robots over time,” said Bertrand, seeking to contextualize the display. “If you were here early in the season, you’d see most teams steering their robots around the ring trying to push the four buttons. At this stage in the game, they’ve mastered that skill and are going for the big points, which entails lifting the large balls into the buckets.”
Outside the arena, WAHS senior and robotics club president Aaron Martinez approached the Peacocks. Delving out high fives, he offered pointers he believed would help better their device’s grasping capabilities.
“Aaron’s like this creative problem solver who spends all his free time teaching himself how things work,” said Bertrand. “He’s a great leader and an excellent communicator, and is passionate about the competition. He loves to teach his peers and will happily share his excitement with an engineer, player, or even a child at a fundraiser.”
As Martinez discussed ways to strengthen and stabilize the Peacocks’ grasping mechanism, a pair of students from AHS joined the conversation, seconding Martinez’s ideas while adding insights and experiential anecdotes of their own.
But wait, isn’t this supposed to be a scrimmage? And aren’t scrimmages, well, competitive?
“The really amazing thing about FIRST programs is how collaborative they are,” said Martinez. “It’s not so much about winning or losing as it is working together to learn, get better, and create a functional design. At any given event you’ll see a robot break down and other teams chipping in to offer parts and tools and even assistance to get it back up and running. Everybody supports everybody and wants to see everyone succeed—which I think is really different than other competitive environments.”
Martinez was alluding to an inbuilt component of the international organization that sponsors and lays the rules for these competitions, FIRST, (“For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). “FIRST focuses on developing something called ‘gracious professionalism,’ the willingness to work well together and to help others even if they’re not on your team,” said Bertrand.
To facilitate the development of these skills, FIRST matches are played in a two v. two format where, in the opening rounds of any given competition, each team is paired with a randomly selected ‘alliance partner.’ The alliance partners’ robots square off in the arena, working together to score as many points as possible and win the match. At later stages in a competition, the top four teams choose whom they’ll partner with in the finals.
“This means that an important part of competitions is communicating with other teams about what your robot can do,” said Bertrand. “It really changes the dynamic, integrating the teams and making everything more interactive and collaborative.”
This emphasis on personal development within community is a theme with FIRST. Indeed, while programs are centered about tech skills, their aim is much broader. “There are so many aspects to this competition that we aren’t just looking for technical people: creative types, good communicators, big picture thinkers, organizers and leaders are all needed,” said Bertrand. “The idea is really to teach kids how to work together in a team environment to pursue a collective goal.” With support from volunteer mentors, students largely govern themselves, performing designated roles such as builders, computer-aided designers, programmers, engineering notebook producers, team organizers, community outreach specialists, and more.
“I knew nothing about building or programming, but I got really excited about the Engineering Notebook and decided to join,” said Jessica Novotne, a member of Her Majesty’s Engineers. While it’s mandatory for each team to keep an EN—which Novotne described as a kind of combined pictorial and textual diary documenting the team’s progress over the course of a season—before she came along the notebook was basically perfunctory. “At competitions we’re actually judged on it; they like to flip through the notebook and see how we arrived at our design and figured things out and progressed throughout the season,” she said. “So I thought I could change the formatting and add photos and headers and pull quotes, things that’d make it more personal and just more of an aesthetic experience—like a magazine, or a scrapbook, or a really good website.”
The team welcomed Novotne’s innovations and, according to Bertrand, the revamped notebook has since won a number of design awards. “Jessica’s work is at the heart of the team’s energy and spirit,” said Bertrand. “And she’s developed skills in writing and video editing which will help her in her chosen field of communications.”
At WAHS and Henley, with five teams and over 30 total participants, the FIRST program is booming. While teams typically meet four after-school hours per week, this season Her Majesty’s Engineers asked to meet for a whopping eight hours per week.
“It’s a huge time commitment, but it’s so worth it,” said Martinez. “The robotics club isn’t just somewhere you can build and program robots, it’s a place where you meet people who are passionate about the same things that you are. Without it I know I would’ve never met my closest friends and I would’ve never challenged myself to take harder classes and get better grades, much less decide to pursue an education in civil engineering learning under the best professors in the world.”
Out of 160 teams in Virginia, fewer than a third qualify for the state tournament. Her Majesty’s Engineers is one and will be competing Feb. 25 at the Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg. According to Bertrand, there’s a good chance they’ll go even further, potentially competing nationally and maybe in the world competition.