Alyssa Jost puts a game controller in my hand and looks at her mentor, saying, “I want her to drive.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever even held a game controller before. And what I’m supposed to be “driving” is just as unfamiliar—a robot on wheels.
On top of that, Alyssa won’t tell me how it works. She wants me to “experiment.”
I push a button and an arm flies out from the side of the robot. I push another button and another arm extends, from the other side. A third button makes a vertical arm lift up.
“Try those,” Alyssa says, pointing at the actual drive controls. I say a quiet prayer and send the robot into a spin.
Alyssa, an 8th grader, is on the TigeRobotics team at Globe Unified School District, along with about a dozen other high-school and middle-school students. They meet in the basement of the Science building, along with coach RJ Castaneda and various mentors. They are preparing two robots for competition. In the process, they’re learning a lot about problem solving, engineering, and teamwork.
The robot I’m attempting to “drive” is #10246 in the FTC division. It’s about the size of a small lawn mower, but without a handle, and with six small wheels instead of four. It’s painted orange and black and has a round logo bolted to the back, designed by student Jamilia Bates. The students built the robot in September and will be working throughout the academic year to prepare it for competition. The competition involves the robot performing about 20 tasks, including moving objects, picking things up, and climbing a “mountain.”
The team started with a kit that included the robot’s base, wheels, and motors. Once that basic starting point was constructed, the real work began. The students have to figure out how the robot will perform the tasks, and then build whatever is needed to do it, such as arms and scoops. They also have to program the robot and engineer ways to control it. They get ideas by talking to other teams, going to workshops, and studying YouTube videos submitted by other FTC teams—all in the spirit of “coopertition.”
Noelle Anderson, who works on STEM programs for GUSD, showed me videos of robots that had successfully climbed to the top of the mountain. Only two teams in Arizona have figured out how to do it. Given the excitement and focus I feel in the room, the TigeRobotics team has a great chance to do the same. The FTC division is a new unit of the GUSD robotics program that just started in Fall 2015 for grades 7–12, and they’ve already won two second places and a design award in their first three competitions. This success has qualified the TigeRobotics team to compete in the state championship in Flagstaff on February 27. This is the third year of competition for the high-school robotics team (FRC division).
While I experiment with driving #10246, it’s hard not to be distracted by other activity going on in the room. Because there’s another robot, too, and this one is even more intimidating. It stands more than three feet high and has large panels of electronics on each side. Darrel Yerkovich is explaining to the students why the electronics panels are mounted on the side of the robot instead of on the base. Five or six students are crowded around, listening intently.
Yerkovich is one of several volunteer adult mentors who work with the team members on skills ranging from engineering to project management to writing. There are also student mentors—older students who have been on the team in the past.
The two robots compete in two different divisions. The smaller one “plays” for the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), with team members in grades 7 through 12. The larger one, the one Yerkovich is crouching next to, competes in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), with teams in grades 9 through 12. The students on both TigeRobotics teams work on both robots. With two robots and lots of components needed for each one, there are plenty of tasks to keep all the team members busy.
FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” The organization was founded by Dean Kamen, an inventor, in 1989. Its stated purpose is to provide “accessible, innovative programs to build self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills while motivating young people to pursue opportunities in science, technology, and engineering.” Students who participate in FIRST have access to $25 million in scholarship opportunities at colleges and universities around the country, including the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott.
The TigeRobotics team is in need of funding for the 2016 program, with the program primarily supported by donations and grants. This year, a donation from the Freeport McMoRan annual STEM grant funded the FTC division (the smaller robot). Funds are always needed for the FRC division (the larger robot), which has daunting annual expenses to operate effectively. The team is currently looking for travel expense assistance to take the FTC team to the State Championships in Flagstaff this February. Resolution Copper is also one of the teams’ greatest partners, providing annual funding to the program, and has just agreed to support both teams for the next three years. Bryan Seppala, Resolution’s regional community liaison, is also one of the team mentors, assisting with marketing and fundraising.
One way that any Arizona taxpayer can support the program, at no cost to themselves, is by taking advantage of the Arizona state tax credit program. A person filing individually can contribute up to $200 and those filing a joint return can give up to $400. The amount comes out of the taxpayer’s state taxes. If you would like to participate, you can pick up a form at the GUSD office on Ash or download one from http://bit.ly/GUSDTAXCREDIT and designate your donation to fund GUSD Robotics. You do not have to have a child enrolled in school.
Another way to support the program is by volunteering as a mentor. Mentors are not required to attend all team meetings and do not have to have science or engineering skills. Mentors are needed in all areas, from marketing to metal shop. For more information, contact Noelle Anderson at (928) 402-6002 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can see video of the TigeRobotics robots on the GUSD STEM Facebook page, and more information about the FIRST program is online at www.firstinspires.org.