As I watched homemade robots scurry around the playing field, picking up orange balls and attaching “hatches” to the sides of rockets and cargo ships Saturday, I realized we’re moving fast into the fanciful world of the Jetsons.
I treated myself at Christmas to a little robotic vacuum, envisioning magically cleaned carpets and days of leisure. Unfortunately, the little bugger scarcely skimmed the surface dirt, but we laughed a lot as the cats skittered under the chairs or jumped onto the windowsill.
But Rosie the Robot, the space-age cartoon family’s demonstrator model from U-Rent a Maid, won’t be far from reality based on the creative maneuvers of the robots darting around the field set up in the Auburn Mountainview High School gym during the Pacific Northwest District FIRST Robotics Competition.
We’ve all heard about the importance of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — and I saw those skills in action as high school students from Centralia and Chehalis competed with teams from 36 other schools in alliances that changed with every match.
After two days and 94 matches, the Bearcats Robotics 4060, selected for an alliance in the final rounds that won first place in the district event, ranked 16th out of 151 teams in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, although about 40 of those haven’t played at all yet. Centralia’s robotics team, Organized Chaos, which is only in its second year, wasn’t picked for the final rounds and ranked 95th. But this was only the beginning as more events are scheduled this spring to see which teams qualify for regionals.
The Chehalis robotics team has competed in the world championship FIRST Robotics competition — with FIRST an acronym: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — three times, in 2014 and 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri, and in 2017 in Houston, Texas.
Under the FIRST program, high school students and their mentors across the world receive a common set of rules and standard “kit of parts” the same day (Jan. 5 this year) to build a robot within six weeks that can play a field game. Each year the game changes. Teams, working within a set budget, can add other parts to their robots, which can weigh up to 125 pounds.
At the competitions, they work together with teams from other schools in alliances, which pay off during finals rounds. The top eight teams pick one team they want to work with, and that team picks the third member of the alliance.
“That’s why scouting and forming relationships with other teams is so important,” said April Conaway, a Bearcats mentor. “The teams look for robots that work well with theirs.”
Last year, during the 29th year of FIRST competitions, more than 91,000 students from 27 countries participated, assisted by 25,000 mentors.
This year students competed in the Boeing Co.’s Destination: Deep Space, which takes place on plant Primus, where two competing alliances are collecting samples, interrupted by frequent sandstorms. With only two minutes and 30 seconds until liftoff, robots had to gather cargo pods and prepare the ships for takeoff before the next sandstorm.
Especially in the final rounds, the alliances form defensive strategies to keep the other alliance’s robots from scoring points.
The Bearcat Robotics team has 11 students and seven mentors, including teachers Emily Jordan and Randy Smith. The drive team is Chase Conaway, Alexander Eades, Shelby Johnson and Konrad Duncan. The other students serve as pit crew, programmer, and scouts.
“The team is young, with only one senior,” April Conaway said. “It’s such an amazing feeling to see all of their hard work, long hours, and perseverance pay off with a first-place win. Robotics is such a roller coaster of emotions, but whether they’re running consistently and winning or having to troubleshoot and make repairs, they’re always learning.”
Her son, Chase, the only senior, has participated four years. He described the competition as “very fun and challenging.”
“Our first couple of matches were shaky, but once we got ironed out, we did really well,” he said. “Robotics teaches you so much, especially about engineering but also about humbleness, business, and so much more.”
Centralia’s team debuted last year under the leadership of coach Lance Ulrigg. This year Darrin Canfield, a Centralia High School teacher for 26 years, coaches the team, which consists of eight students: A.J. Hubbard, Charles Leon, Jordan Jacobi, Dylan Altona, Christopher Abarta, Alanah Conley, Jacob Mecham, and Darcy Frankovich.
“I have the advantage of being a computer programmer,” Canfield said. “They have a build team and a programming team.”
He noted that the team won their first event, but their robot died during another one because the battery jiggled lose. After each event, the students carry their robots back to their pit for repairs and upgrades.
The Bearcats Konrad Duncan, a sophomore who has “loved every minute” of his four years in robotics, described the competition as “awesome.”
“We had a hatch grabber that worked beautifully and probably got our team into the finals,” he said. “What I love about robotics is that it gives you an opportunity to work with people you wouldn’t work with otherwise.”
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at email@example.com.