By Travis Smola
Schoolcraft High School was quiet on a cold, windy February Saturday, except for the racket coming from one classroom where a handful of students, parents and a teacher were hard at work building a robot.
They were preparing for a robotics competition organized by FIRST, a not-for-profit organzation which holds competitions for several age groups. The Schoolcraft team has just six weeks to design, build and program a robot for competition. This is Schoolcraft’s sixth year competing.
“The kids actually fabricate most of the robot,” teacher Donya Dobbins said.
The FIRST Robotics competitions give students a variety of options on how they want to approach the challenges laid out for them. This year’s challenge revolves around moving cargo from one area to another and removing and replacing hatch panels to hold the cargo in place. It simulates how a robot might transfer supplies from a rocket to astronauts on a space station.
Competitions pit teams three on three against each other. They must strategize with the other teams in their group to accomplish as many tasks as they can in a little over two minutes. Most teams focus on one niche task. Schoolcraft is focusing on moving and replacing the cargo hatch.
“The goal for the three teams is to get as many points on our half of the field as quickly as we can,” Dobbins said.
Points are earned for each task they complete. And there are many opportunities for bonus points. For instance, they can earn more if their robot can climb back onto the raised platform it started on, which is no easy task considering the robot can weigh up to 125 pounds.
The rules vary from game to game, but some defense can also be played by blocking an opponent’s robot from its tasks or by stealing the other team’s cargo – although this isn’t Battlebots; there is a penalty for contact with an opponent. The teams with the most points moves to the next round.
The competitions are mostly for bragging rights. There is the possibility to advance to the state and national level. But there is also the chance to connect with different science professionals and colleges. Most of all, the competitions are about learning.
Senior Ben Sampley has been in the program his whole high school career. He loves the challenge of designing and real-world problem solving and science that comes with it.
“That stuff directly transfers to how the (engineering) industry runs things,” Sampley said. “They kind of help take everything we’re learning in school and help implement it. Then they help give you the connections and the practices that you need to be successful in the engineering industry,” he added.
Sampley said he has learned everything from computer-aided design software to MIG and TIG welding to programming and machining as a result. Some of those skills should directly translate to his chosen major of aviation when he attends WMU next year.
He isn’t the only one who sees the competition as helping to build skills for a future career. Freshman Brynleigh MacInnes thinks the things she’s learning could help her as she pursues a career in marine biology. “I want to make technology that can go deeper underwater,” MacInnes said.
She’s learned a lot even before the first competition has taken place. “The most fun for me has been learning how to program,” she said.
One of the biggest challenges is just funding the program. The entry fee costs $5,000. Dobbins said they have received donations this year from Denso, the Kalamazoo Pool Players Association and Parker Hannifin. Big C Lumber donated all the wood the students are using to make wooden platforms and the hatch panels they’ll use to practice on. Volunteers, both parents and from local businesses, help with the construction and some of the programming.
There are also the costs for the robot. The team recycles many parts from year-to-year, but they are also constantly upgrading. They added $1,200 in parts this year alone. “We do a lot of pneumatics, so it’s expensive,” Dobbins said.
A few marketing students are also on board to help deal with the costs for the team, providing yet another learning opportunity as the team is run almost like a business. “We could always use support, money, mentors, students,” Dobbins said. She said they are also open to working with students from other districts who may not have a team.
Sampley said that is another huge plus about the competitions, the chance to connect with other like-minded “nerdy” students from other schools. You step into an environment that is pretty much nerd-tastic,” Sampley said. “It is so nerdy there, it’s awesome. It’s kind of like going to Comic Con.”
The team’s first competition will be at Battle Creek Lakeview schools on March 8 and 9.