By Sue Moore
Vicksburg Middle School has been building a championship robotics team for over six years, according to co-coach Eric Hackman in his presentation to the school board in February. The students, ages 11-13, meet at the beginning of each school year to receive the year’s challenge from FIRST Robotics, an international not-for-profit company promoting science, technology and engineering through robotic competitions.
“These are pretty cool kids,” co-coach Matt Bombich declared. “There are 600 middle school teams in Michigan, with 96 of them competing at the state finals in Battle Creek. Our goal was to build the robots to do everything required and build the robots the very best that we can. That landed us in the top 50 teams in the state,” he said. The students demonstrated their winning techniques for parents, faculty and staff at the board meeting.
The team spends the first few weeks planning the design of their robot. It must perform tasks on its own with programming created by the students and must also be built to be driven by the students. Mentors and leaders are there to teach and encourage, said Bombich, who has been a co-coach with Hackman for the last five years.
“I’ve learned a lot myself,” Bombich said. “I didn’t know anything when I started with the kids in 2014. I sat in the back of the room to observe and pretty soon, I was the co-leader. A robot needs to lift something with a linear motion and be able to rotate at the same time, much like wheels on a car. There are mechanical and engineering skills needed to produce the solution to the problem that is thrown at them. It’s all in the learning process the kids encounter.”
FIRST Robotics, organizing the tech challenges, designs a game using a standard, reusable kit of parts. The game is played on a 12-by-12-foot playing field with two teams playing against another two teams for points. A new game is created each year by the company.
“Our fundraising goal for this year was $17,000,” said Bombich. We almost reached that goal with grants from the school, state and local corporate sponsorships.
It costs around $600 to start an elementary team and we started four this year. “We put out the call and 26 kids just showed up to get started,” Hackman said. Most of the cost is robot parts. Registration for tournaments is the next highest cost at around $300 for the four elementary teams to attend one event and $2,250 for the three middle school teams to attend three events each.
“We are beginning to reach that critical mass of student participation which will allow us to take the next step up into the FIRST Robotic Competition (FRC) division next year with our high school students” Hackman said. Bombich added, “When our high schoolers move up to the higher division, FRC next year, the registration fee will be $6,000.Those events cost more because they are more elaborate.” A budget of $10,000 is anticipated for the high school team alone, according to Hackman.
Events sponsored by the company are a chance for teams to engage in the fun and excitement of competition. Awards are presented for robot build, design, and performance as well as for community outreach and other real-world accomplishments, according to its web site.
FIRST is an acronym: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.