The cheers of “Blue Alliance” echo throughout the gym at Mason High School as middle school students across four Michigan counties compete with, and against, teams in an effort to secure a spot to the Michigan State Championship. No, this is not basketball, volleyball or even swimming. It is FIRST Tech Challenge, an extracurricular program designed for grades 6th through 8th in which teams build a robot to complete a series of challenges. Students of Laingsburg’s FIRST Tech Challenge team, Sneaky Suspicion #21537, were able to experience this unique opportunity first hand in their league tournament Saturday, December 3.
“I love that we can use skills like engineering, team work and problem solving and turn it into a machine that completes a task,” says 6th-grade member Adeline.
More than 7,600 teams and 77,000 students across the globe learn of their game (which changes annually) and its challenges in early September. Following the reveal, teams have six short weeks to design, build, prototype, program and troubleshoot a robot that can achieve the game’s objective. In addition to building a functioning robot, teams keep meticulous notes in an engineering notebook, prepare a portfolio and practice a 5-minute speech that is given to a panel of judges. The presentation, along with a question-and-answer session, the team’s engineering portfolio and how the team answers follow up questions during pit judging qualifies the team to earn awards. “I loved seeing the kids work together and learning how to figure out a problem, helping each other and getting help from the high school team. They are truly learning skills that will benefit them long after they are out of school,” shares robotics parent and boosters club member, April Wright.
For Laingsburg’s rookie team, this meant learning many new skills in a short amount of time. Paul Garrett, Laingsburg’s FIRST district liaison, was a strong proponent of expanding FIRST Robotics from a single high school team to a current count of seven teams across all buildings. “FIRST Tech Challenge and other younger robotics programs were developed in Laingsburg in a push to integrate a robust hands-on STEM learning experience for students. The performance of our FTC team at their league tournament was impressive and encouraged our hopes for the future of robotics in Laingsburg,” says Garrett. Sneaky Suspicion is a mixture of sixth, seventh and eighth graders, who for many, encountered building a competition robot for the first time. The students learned how to use shop equipment such as power drills, vertical band saws and sanders as well as software such as Java coding, Adobe Photoshop and OnShape, a 3D modeling program. They also learned how to utilize the workshop’s 3D printers to print their own robot parts as well as a Cricut so they could complete their poster board! In addition to technical hands-on opportunities, Laingsburg’s middle school team partnered with the high school robotics team, Red Thunder Robotics #7166, to learn how to Stop the Bleed with McLaren Hospital. Grant, an 8th-grade member, shared his experience on the team by saying, “Some of the most fun things I’ve learned so far is how to operate a drill press, CAD software or learning to code Java script.”
This year’s game challenge was to design a robot that could pick up cones 5-inch tall with a 4-inch diameter base and place them on poles of different heights called junctions. Taller junctions were worth more points, with floor level junctions worth only two points. The first 30 seconds of each match is called an autonomous period, in which the robot must work solely from a programming code. Sneaky Suspicion’s programmers learned how to write code which made the robot move without human controls, read a randomized color using a sensor and move the robot to a space depending upon that color. The next 90 seconds of each match is driver controlled. Match play is two-on-two and the objective of each match is to score more points than your opponents.
Sneaky Suspicion is a member of Michigan South Central Robotics League (www.mscrl.org), a consortium of 35 teams from Ingham, Jackson, Washtenaw and Shiawassee counties. Meets were held to allow teams to meet one another, compete and refine their robots before their league tournament. Sneaky Suspicion was ranked tenth entering the qualifying tournament, an admirable position for a first-year team. “I could not be more proud for this team. After each meet, the team returned with ideas about how to make their robot more effective. Their willingness to try an idea, although it may not work, is the basis for many things: school, work, life. Their persistence to not give up, even when things were not going our way demonstrates the type of resilience necessary for success,” said Melissa Kramer, mentor for Sneaky Suspicion.
FIRST Robotics (www.firstinspires.org) believes in the mantra “More than Robots” and Laingsburg’s rookie team embraced this philosophy. Their presentation and ability to thoroughly describe their four robot design changes caught the judges’ attention and the team was recognized with a Judge’s Choice award, while also earning second place in the Design Award category. “The hard work the mentors put in to have students record their design process, explain their thinking and take control of their team was honored with the Judge’s Choice award, an accomplishment that cannot be understated. As head of the high school robotics team, I am ecstatic for the incoming freshmen I will have the honor of working with not only next year, but this upcoming season (Garrett).”
An average middle school robotics program needs $2,500 annually while a high school team needs at least $10,000. Sneaky Suspicion and Red Thunder Robotics are members of Wolfpack Robotics, a K-12 initiative within Laingsburg Community Schools. Wolfpack Robotics is always looking to partner with individuals and local businesses to sustain this unique STEM opportunity. For more information on how you can donate to the program or how your business can become a sponsor, please visit www.wolfpack-robotics.com.