FIRST Robotics Competition
The FIRST Robotics Competition, or FRC, is an after-school program for high school students all over the world to learn engineering fundamentals through designing, building, and competing with a robot. Students fundraise for parts and travel costs, design a robot to compete in a specific game, build the robot with minimal help from adults, and eventually compete against other teams. During the competitions, the students also have opportunities to compete for Judges’ Awards for categories such as Team Spirit, Innovation in Controls, Entrepreneurship, and Industrial Safety.
As a mentor for one of these teams, FRC Team 5010 – nicknamed Tiger Dynasty for the Fishers High School mascot, my job is to help the students meet all of these goals. The other mentors and I also coordinate with the school to make sure that we are following all the rules, our account is in order, and the students are making their grades. We work with parents to coordinate team activities, transportation, and meals at competitions. The three mentors also keep a constant lookout for additional mentors to fill in the gaps between our own skillsets, and to help lighten the load.
Our team’s goal is to bring STEM education to everyone. It may seem like a lofty goal for a group of teenagers with hardly any STEM experience of their own, but our students continue to rise to the challenge. They not only participate in these activities, but actively seek them out and get their fellow students excited for STEM education. We have hosted students, parents, and teachers from other schools at our build sessions and competitions, helping them to lay the groundwork to start teams at their own high schools. They even want to start FIRST Lego Leagues (ages 9-14) at other schools in the district, so that students will have more experience when they get to FRC in high school. Some of the community outreach events we have attended this year include Engineering Night at Sand Creek Elementary School, Passport to Hi-Tech at Connor Prairie, Robotics Day at the Indianapolis Museum, and Stars Wars Day at the Fishers Public Library.
On top of all these activities, the students do get to build and compete with a robot – a 6’6″ tall robot that weighs 110 lbs, to be exact. The students watched a live streaming presentation on January 3, 2015, that kicked off the FRC build season. The game challenge was kept a secret until this time, and all the students around the world learned what the challenge was at the same time. Then they had a mere six weeks to build a robot to play the game. Once complete, the robot was bagged in a very large plastic bag, sealed, and signed. After this, we weren’t allowed to touch the robot until the first competition, at Lawrence North High School.The students worked with other teams to play this year’s game, Recycle Rush, which required them to stack recycling bins six high, place them in designated scoring areas, cap them with trash cans, and put litter (pool noodles) in the trash cans. Words don’t do it justice. This year’s challenge was loud and chaotic, and made many students loathe recycling bins (if you are interested, just search YouTube for “FRC Recycle Rush”). Unfortunately, we placed 25th out of over 30 teams and did not make the finals.
However, the less-than-stellar performance hasn’t deterred the students on this young team one bit. After a little break to let everyone rest and recover, the students started right back in with the hard work. We hold weekly meetings to discuss fundraising activities and new outreach opportunities. The students have also convinced the school to let them continue to work on the robot over the summer. They will be hard at work this summer making improvements to the robot. For the 2015-2016 school year, there will be an FRC pre-season, during which teams get together for small-scale competitions and play last season’s game with last-season’s robots. It gives freshmen students a chance to get involved and experience the world of FIRST before the stress of the 2016 build season hits. By this time, our students will have reached out to many more young students to get them interested in robotics and STEM education, and spent dozens more hours tinkering, perfecting, and practicing driving the robot. They are always looking for ways to improve. Someday, they will make great engineers. In the meantime, it is an honor to be part of their journey.
Rachel Romines is an electrical engineer with Applied Engineering Services.