Three local teams of high school students are headed to the World FIRST Robotics Championship in St. Louis this week. FIRST™ is the acronym For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The teams are made up of students from Oakwood, Fairmont, Dayton Early College Academy (DECA), Springboro, West Carrollton and Vandalia.
Recently, they gathered at the K12 & TEJAS Gallery on Jefferson St. in downtown Dayton for a robotics demonstration. The two robots that will compete in St. Louis have already been packed and shipped but one robot is on hand. Driven by two young female teammates, this robot whips around a makeshift obstacle course set up in the gallery. It has a throwing arm and shoots balls to a nearby student ready to catch them.
Dennis Geehan is a volunteer with the K-12 Gallery, a sponsor of the Bonds team. It’s their first year competing.
“These students have been working tirelessly for months to prepare for this competition, but they only found out what kind of competition they were going to have to build a robot for in January,” he said. “And then they only had six weeks to build that robot.”
Geehan says once teams learn what their robot will be required to do, they set out to design, build, and test their robots. It's all up to the students.
Joining the Bonds team in St. Louis are the West Carrollton Pirate Robotics team. Geehan says both rookie teams have performed well as new competitors.
“In their first year, with only two matches for the Bonds and one match for West Carrollton, they were both named 2016 Rookie All-Star Teams and earned a direct invitation to the world championship where they are going to be competing against more than 400 teams from 50 countries and around the United States.”
Representatives from the Vandalia-based Innovators Robotics team will also head to the competition but will not compete, though they will accept performance awards. The team mentored the two rookie teams.
Mentors play a big role in the success of robotics team—especially for rookie teams competing for the first time. Carl Springli, the lead mentor for the Bonds team, says STEM-based programs like robotics are valuable beyond teaching just science and math.
“[The students are] also learning how to work alongside each other as part of a team, and you also notice a lot of students build up more confidence," he said. "So, it builds them up to the point where they’re like ‘Hey, I can do something great. I can do something that makes a difference.' Now that’s something completely different than they can get through school.”
Student, Alex Burchett programs and drives the robot for the West Carrollton Pirate Robotics.
“I’ve always been interested in engineering. I’ve always played around with electronics and RC airplanes and stuff of that nature," he said. "I hope to someday become an aerospace engineer.”
Burchett describes driving the robots as “a lot of fun” and says that taking them for a spin in the high school hallways always gets a good reaction from the other students.
17 year-old John Woodman is the Pirates team coach. He says it’s all about communication, "My main job is to kind of go around and strategize with the other teams in our alliance so I go talk to their coaches and figure out what their machines can and can’t do and figure out a strategy.”
Woodman says when all this is happening “you’re just kind of in the moment.” He also says FIRST scholarships can help with college and the new skills he’s gained will help with help with his chosen field. He plans to attend Ohio State University after graduation.
Attending the K12 demonstration, John Woodman’s parents both agree that the robotics program has given their son more opportunities for the future.
"We enjoy watching the kids not just succeed but just have fun and work together," John Woodman Sr said. "It’s very exciting and he’s gotten a lot out of it and we couldn’t be prouder of those kids.”
Tracy Martz, the director of STEM initiatives at Dayton Early College Academy, says DECA has been involved in the FIRST program for eight years—but it’s expensive. That’s why neighboring schools have banded together to form teams.
“We have brought students together from a suburban school and an urban school, and they have just meshed beautifully. The cultural competency that these students are being exposed to working as a team has been fabulous,” she said.
Martz also praised the Dayton community for coming together to raise additional funds to get them to St. Louis.
The FIRST™ Robotics Championship takes in St. Louis MO, April 27-30, 2016. If you’re interested in watching the students and robots in action, they’ll be streamed live at firstinspires.org April 29th and 30th.