For the last six months, I’ve been mentoring over at Walpole High School for the robotics team, the Walpole Robo Rebels. It’s been a great experience.
FIRST, usfirst.org, is an organization that believes we need to teach our kids how to deal with real world challenges, but that we can let them have fun while doing so. They started up the First Robotic Challenge, or FRC, back in the mid-1990s.
The FRC program challenges the students to build a robot designed to play a game, in only six weeks. The game is different every year, and is revealed at the start of the 6-week build season. The game is about 3-minutes long and is typically played with several other robots built by other FRC teams.
These robots aren’t little toy robots. The dimensions vary a bit from year to year, but not by a lot. This year the robots were allowed to weigh up to 120 lbs and stand up to five feet high. They race around the game field at speeds up to 16 mph.
The point is to give the students a challenge that is seemingly impossible, and then help them meet it. That’s where the mentoring comes in.
The Walpole High School program is run by Dustin Scott with lots of help from Fred Hink and Paula Fontaine. We’re fortunate to have a great mentoring crew of almost a dozen individuals. Most of us have engineering backgrounds, but that’s not a requirement. Running an effective FIRST program is a big job and the more hands you have, the better.
This is my rookie year, and I’ve probably learned more from the other mentors and the students than I’ve taught. But I’ve made some great connections with some of the students and made fast friends among the other mentors.
This is more than just sitting around trying to build a robot and eating pizza. It requires a lot of commitment by the students, the parents, and the mentors. We all give up a lot of time. The students have to put in at least ten hours a week in the computer lab if they want to go to the tournaments. The mentors often put in as much or more time.
This year, the hard work paid off. We have a good solid robot which has been nicknamed the “Ten-ton Hamster Wheel of Doom” by the announcer at our first event.
Things didn’t go smoothly. By the time the six-week build season ran out, we weren’t entirely done. We had a robot that could move around and pick up the 24″ diameter balls that are this year’s game pieces, but we couldn’t shoot the balls over the 5″ truss in the middle of the field, or up through the high goal at the end of the field.
For the two weeks between the end of the build season and our first event at WPI, we worked on building a shooter mechanism that would have the required punch, fit in the space required, and not exceed our weight limitations.
For most of our first day at WPI, we didn’t have a shooter. But we still did reasonably well. We finally got the shooter working that night, but didn’t have a lot of time to tune it. Then, during a practice match, someone inadvertently dry-fired the shooter, and it imploded. We left WPI ranked 25 out of the 50-some robots with a record of 5-7-0. We also won the Industrial Design Award sponsored by GM.
One of the great things about the events is that you get to meet the other teams and see how they’ve gone about solving the same problems you’ve had to face. We discovered that several teams had found a way to use pneumatic cylinders to drive their shooters. While we went home with a broken mess of metal and plastic, we also went home with a new idea about how to build a shooter that would work.
In the two weeks before our next match, we built a brand new shooter, tested it, and mounted it on the robot. (Even though the robots are bagged between events, there is a rule that lets you unbag the robot and work on it for up to six hours in the week before your next event.)
Our second event was at Northeastern University where the new shooter served us well. This time, we qualified for the finals and weren’t knocked out until the semi-finals. We were ranked 5th with a record of 10-7-0. Here, we won the Excellence in Engineering Award sponsored by Delphi.
Unexpectedly, we qualified for the New England FRC Region Championship. We had to scramble, but we got all our arrangements made and took our ‘Hamster Wheel of Doom’ to Boston University, where the event was hosted.
By this time, the kids were really pumped. We hadn’t really expected to do quite this well this season, and at this event, they got to see, and in some cases meet, Woodie Flowers and Dean Kamen, the heart and soul of the FIRST program.
We did really well, rising to rank 2 by the end of the qualification matches. Sadly, we got knocked out in the quarterfinals, but we ended up with a record of 9-4-1. We also won the Gracious Professionalism Award sponsored by Johnson & Johnson.
Because we did so well at New England, we got invited to the World Championship in St. Louis. No one, at the beginning of the season would have predicted we’d go so far. We were down to the last $3000 dollars in the bank. We seriously considered not going, but, as one parent put it, if we weren’t going to go to the World Championship when we were invited, what message did that send to the kids? So we undertook the Herculean task of raising nearly $25,000 in three days along with making travel arrangements, finding a nurse, and the dozens of other things that had to get done.
I’m delighted to say that the team is going. We’re sending four mentors and over a dozen kids to St. Louis. We’d have loved to send everyone, but there are limits to what even this team can accomplish.
I’m really proud to have been part of this program this year and I intend to do the same thing next year. These young people are going to be the movers and shakers of their generation. They are the ones that will deal with the problems we’ve left them. I feel like it’s our responsibility to help them however we can.