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Committed to the competition

Robotic team heads into a combative season

Rachel Halmrast, Staff Reporter
Originally published March 29, 2016

Photo courtesy of Cecelia O’RollinsJunior Cecilia Kalthoff works with an advisor to check the wiring of the robot and make sure everything is in working order. The students work in small teams on different parts of the robot to prepare it to compete.

Photo courtesy of Cecelia O’Rollins

Junior Cecilia Kalthoff works with an advisor to check the wiring of the robot and make sure everything is in working order. The students work in small teams on different parts of the robot to prepare it to compete.

It’s 8 o’clock on a Wednesday night, and the only sign of life in the empty school is coming from the back of the science pod. The CNC room, the Shop and the Engineering room are still brightly lit and bustling with activity as thirty or so students and a few teachers in safety goggles attempt to complete a monumental task — to build a robot in less than two months.

Several students are bent over the robot itself, which sits on a table. The rectangular frame is made of aluminum bars, which is surrounded by a polycarbonate (Plexiglas) shell with triangular cutouts. The motor that controls the wheels is held in the middle. There are actually eight motors in total, which all control different functions of the robot.

By now the team has reached the end of their “build season,” meaning the six weeks leading up to their first district competition. The theme of the competition changes every year, and the team’s robot must be able to accomplish tasks that are specific to that year’s arena. The team has to wait for Kickoff in early January to find out what the competition will be like, and after that, build season begins.

For this year’s competition, the robot will have to navigate an elaborate obstacle course, shoot balls into the windows of the other team’s “castle” and capture the castle to win points. There are other ways to earn points at the competition too, like winning awards for the team’s involvement in the community or entrepreneurship. The robot will be competing alongside two other teams’ robots in an “alliance” against another group of three.

Now that build season has ended, competition season has begun. The team attended their first competition the weekend of March 11. “It was my first year on drive team, and that’s probably the most stressful portion, in my opinion,” she said. “You can have an awesome robot, but if your drive team doesn’t work well together, your robot isn’t going to demonstrate the skills that it has.

The team managed to win first place in their event, even though they were up against the highest ranked alliance “We weren’t expecting to win the event at all,” Kalthoff said. “We kind of had accepted that we might not move on.”

In order to qualify for the district competition, the team had to earn a certain number of district points at previous competitions. Despite losing their first match, a high score in their second match and a penalty against the other alliance in their third carried them on to districts. “I still can’t believe that we did it. There was this moment where it didn’t feel real,” Kalthoff said.

Back during build season, the team spent between nine and 12 hours in the robotics department after school each week. If they’re not cutting aluminum for the frame or connecting wires, they’re writing the codes that will control the robot. Robotics doesn’t only teach students how to build something. It manages to combine manual labor with the more behind-the-scenes work like coding.

The robotics program can be rewarding for students who are interested in going into any STEM field. “A lot of people have told me that STEM is so separate at times, it’s like different worlds, so being able to bridge that is pretty useful,” Kalthoff said. “I’m probably going to end up going into science, like being a chemist or a geneticist, but having the experience in electrical and mechanical too can be really beneficial.” Besides skills specific to STEM, robotics creates opportunities to practice others, like fundraising and finance, time management and collaboration. “You’re able to develop good relations with people of all ages, which is a really unique experience that I probably wouldn’t be getting outside of robotics,” junior Ellie Clarrissimeaux said.

Even with the broad spectrum of skills that robotics can provide, it also creates a space for like-minded students to come together and create something. “The room has become almost a second home to me, and it’s probably because I spend a copious amount of time here,” Clarrissimeaux said. “I never thought I would enjoy spending so much time outside of school in my school, but it feels different because I’m doing something that I enjoy, and that I can see progress with.”

Although the students think very highly of the program as a whole, as one could imagine, working in such close quarters with a large group of people can prove to be a challenge. “It’s stressful at times when people maybe don’t agree with you,” Kalthoff said. “But it also teaches you the skills that you need to be able to work with people that you don’t agree with.”

Clarrissimeaux can also feel the pressure at times. “Everyone feels like your family, and you care about your family, but sometimes they can make you a little crazy,” she said. Although the work environment can be challenging, the team never loses its sense of camaraderie. “You’re all united by doing this crazy thing,” Kalthoff said. “I mean, you’re spending six weeks building a robot.”

Even at competitions, the atmosphere is generally supportive. “Of course there are going to be those people that are incredibly competitive, because that comes with every activity, but generally it’s super upbeat.” This supportive atmosphere is a big part of what students love about the program. From an outside perspective, it may seem like the robotics program offers only one thing to its students: the chance to build a robot. However, many of the skills that it provides go beyond simply building something, and will follow students into their professional lives far after high school.

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