Around this time of year, New Year’s Eve would be the typical setting for a packed room of excited young people to be counting down seconds together in an electric, earnest chant.
On Saturday, Jan.6, instead of the start of a new year, a packed auditorium at John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento celebrated the start of a new robotics season. The room was filled to the brim with local high school robotics teams eagerly awaiting a live stream video that would unveil their fate, broadcast from Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, New Hampshire.
The Winters High School robotics team, Kaprekar’s Constants, along with lead mentor Mike Challender, sat up front and watched the kickoff introduction for the 2018 game: FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Power Up.
Over 91,000 students in 27 different countries all viewed the presentation from Competition. All participants will build a robot to compete in the same game each year, and successful teams advance to championship matches.
This year’s competition, FIRST Power Up is themed after retro video games from the 1980s. Each team is tasked with constructing a robot to place blocks in different sections around an enclosed arena. The robots have to be built for efficiency — each round of the game lasts a blazing two minutes, 30 seconds.
Three teams make up an “alliance” in the game, and two alliances compete against a “boss” who they can challenge by placing blocks to control a switch, or climbing a platform to face the boss in the center of the arena. Both teams have the same goal, but the alliance who has the most points toward defeating the boss wins the match.
This type of competition is typical of FIRST; there is a high value on teamwork, even between teams. FIRST is a non-profit founded by MIT professor Woodie Flowers and Segway inventor Dean Kamen to increase youth participation in science and tech and prepare students for career and professional opportunities after high school.
“Compete like crazy, but compete fairly and ethically,” said Flowers in the kickoff presentation.
“The world needs more smart, capable young people, “said Kamen, “The big problems are going to be hard to solve, and you’re going to fail. For every step back, take two steps forward.”
Teams only have six weeks to build a robot before competitions begin, so the WHS team started going over strategy immediately after the presentation in Challender’s classroom, devoting most of their weekend to planning and beginning to build the base of the robot from the FIRST issued parts kit.
Team members Julia Escamilla, Christie Woods and Anne Guidici worked on strategy, planning and marketing for the club, which is supported by the community and local business for parts and travel to competition.
“We have to make the robot quickly so we can practice,” said Guidici, “We plan on building our own arena to test the robot.”
The team had a big focus on all of the members reading the manual and knowing the game well, which is critical for getting the most points and advancing.
“We could have the best robot, but if we don’t play to the game, we won’t win,” said mentor Alex May.
Diego Escamilla, Montgomery McMahn, Marcos Del Toro and designated robot driver Austin Clark discussed what size to make the robot and began to construct the base. The rest of the robot will be constructed at the Winters High School ag site.
May also began to teach the students how to use programming resource GitHub, which provides a platform for supporting and sharing code, and is widely used by top industry professional software engineers.
“The idea is to have the code be built at the same pace as the robot, or slightly behind,” said May.
According to Challender, some portion of the team will be working on the robot every day until it gets built and becomes functional.
“It’s like a sport for the brain,” he said.
What would be the hardest part of the process?
“Figuring out how to build the thing,” said Challender.
Off to the side, Julia Escamilla nodded in agreement, acknowledging the mountain of work before the team for the 2018 season: a simple answer and a complicated, gargantuan task that the team is excited to start, after already taking some great first steps.