Outside the Classroom

Greasy Hands and Safety Glasses: The Adventures of a High School Robotics Team

All’s quiet in the shop. It’s a momentary lull as 28 high school students and 15 adult mentors have split off to work with their sub-teams. In the programming room, one can hear the soft clattering of keystrokes on laptops and the light buzz of music leaking out of earbuds. There’s the slight screeching sound of a dry-erase marker on the conference room whiteboard as the safety and marketing sub-teams play the safety video. Ah, there it is. Clanggg reverberates through the silence as a wrench hits the concrete floor in the build room and the quiet ends as student and mentor voices erupt in chatter. The mechanical and electrical sub-teams are working on the robot, tossing around several ideas for students to consider.

When you think of a FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team, do you envision a science classroom? Students standing around in white lab coats working with 3D printers? For the Gull Lake Area Robotics team, the Twisted Devils, students with greasy hands, metal shavings lodged in their shoe treads, and safety glasses perched on their heads are part of the daily routine. We’re an eclectic group with a wide range of skill sets and experience. Our host and sponsors own several local businesses and allow the team to meet in their Machine and Tool Shop, which fixes parts for the Kellogg and Post cereal assembly lines in Battle Creek, MI. The team is a volunteer-based non-profit with a healthy budget supported by local foundations and businesses with an interest in robotics.

During the FRC six-week build season, which started January 6th, students and mentors meet every week for two evenings and all day on Saturday. Michigan has over 560 FRC teams, which is the largest number of FRC teams in any state or country in the world. While the team focus is on building a robot that will successfully complete the challenge and advance to the state competition and hopefully the world competition in Detroit this spring, students are engrained with the concept of “Coopertition.” Instead of the fierce competitive spirit common in athletics, the Twisted Devils focus on helping others, sponsoring rookie teams in southwest Michigan, assisting our elementary and middle school teams, hosting regional competitions and education seminars, and volunteering for the remainder of the year.

You see, one robotics team alone does not advance or win a competition. Teams are placed in alliances, always competing with two other teams from around the state of Michigan. Two teams of three have 2 minutes and 45 seconds to complete the elements of the game. There are approximately 60 qualifying rounds before the quarter-final teams are set, and teams participate in a minimum of two tournaments in March. Students from each sub-team “tech in” and “tech out” the robot for every match. It’s stressful and demands attention to detail. Parts break frequently and suddenly, and are fixed quickly before the next match.

Teaching students to think on their feet, and to have the depth, knowledge, and ability to fix any part of the robot during competitions or know which team member to contact to do so is an important goal. While part of the team is on the floor driving the robot, the remaining team members are in the pits answering questions from visiting teams and judges, assisting other teams, scouting, offering safety advice, and making adjustments to the programming and code on the robot for the future and for strategical analysis.

To start this evening’s meeting, the team captain, a senior who is proudly wearing his new Michigan Tech sweatshirt (he’s already been accepted and will start classes in the summer) has told the mentors to leave the conference room. He wants to strategize with students only, and mentors nod their approval as they file out of the room. We are a student-driven team and students will pitch their ideas to the following sub-teams:

Robot Design and Build (Mechanical) Java and LabView (Programming) Electrical Education Badges
Safety Marketing and Social Media Fundraising Drive Team
Community Outreach—Volunteering Spirit and Costume Design Strategy Scholarships
CAD Leadership Awards Event Planning

In the fall, students completed a five-page application detailing their reasons for joining the team, listing their skills and the contributions they will make to the team. Mentors carefully place them into sub-teams based on their interests and the team’s needs. Students will work on several sub-teams and freely float in and out, offering tips or lending a hand. New ideas are volleyed around, much conversation ensues, and it’s common to see several members of the team huddled together during school discussing changes to the robot and strategy. This team has a unique chemistry because over 50% of them are also members of the high school concert and symphonic bands. They are already skilled at the give and take of music, the ebb and flow of band sections, which lends to the overall spirit of camaraderie.

The team represents the ideal elements of the scientific community and design strategies. Students work through the scientific method as they build the robot during the six-week build. While the mentors assemble the field mock-up out of lumber, students meet to propose ideas and draw up designs. Once the team captain formalizes the plan, each sub-team quickly gets to work. The programmers rush to write code that adapts to every situation presented, the mechanical team assembles the first mock-up of the robot, the electrical team coordinates where to place components, marketing prepares presentations for sponsors and updates social media sites, and safety anticipates challenges at competitions and monitors the team’s adherence to shop rules.

During the second and third weeks, the team’s design will have changed and been modified after initial testing and data analysis. By the fourth and fifth week, the team has settled into one design for the robot and students hurry to finalize construction. This gives the programmers time to test their code and make modifications. During the sixth week, the drive team takes over and practices their skills at maneuvering the robot. Students develop strategies to maximize the number of points scored at the competition and costume design and spirit adds finishing touches to the team costumes.

As a parent and mentor, my days with the team are filled with rewards. My role is to support student ideas, find resources, offer tips, and encourage students to work together and communicate as ideas evolve and change. My favorite phrases are that’s fabulous, how could we do that differently?, have you talked with…?, let’s see if that will work, have you considered…?, try this, and great idea. At first, it’s difficult for students to recognize there is no textbook answer, nor a necessarily correct answer. There are ideas that work and many more that do not. Students are encouraged to make mistakes, accept defeat, and start all over, and through conversations with mentors, they learn to model gracious professionalism. These are real life skills, crucial for success. There is no greater reward than watching a student grow in confidence over time, learning how to apply their skills and knowledge with poise and grace.

For more information about FRC competitions, visit the FIRST website. To learn more about the Twisted Devils, check out their website. And if you’re interested in starting a robotics program at your school, read our previous post for tips.

About the Author

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Teresa Tucker

A California native, who now calls Michigan home, Teresa graduated from MSU with a B.S. in Natural Resources and Environmental Education and Secondary Teaching minors in Earth Science and Physical Science, as well as an M.S. focusing on the use of real-time data to motivate students. With 20 years of experience in the classroom and 6 years of online teaching experience, she continues to enjoy working with students, helping them think critically about scientific information.