2014-03-14 / Front Page

Robotics Competition Engages Future Scientists

By Theresa Hillman

Middletown Rhode Warrior team member Kobi Massari (at right) watches intense robot action with a competitor in the Groton competition. (Photo by Theresa Hillman) Middletown Rhode Warrior team member Kobi Massari (at right) watches intense robot action with a competitor in the Groton competition. (Photo by Theresa Hillman) During an exciting March weekend in Groton, Conn., 18 local teenagers entered their team-designed robot into intense game competition. The robot, displaying a blue wave and shark logo, rolled into field action for nine matches and three semifinal rounds in a tournament held annually by the nonprofit organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which sponsors youth programs in the STEM fields. The objective of this year’s “aerial assist” game was for three teams to work together in advancing a large exercise ball down the field to score as many goals as possible duringa21/2minutematch.

The Rhode Warrior robot was successful in throwing, catching, and moving the ball down the playing field. The fact that it repeatedly broke down and continuously challenged the Middletown robotics team was all part of the fun and what made this weekend’s game a valuable learning experience.

Robotic teams on the arena field at the start of one of their matches. (Photo by Kyle Fenton) Robotic teams on the arena field at the start of one of their matches. (Photo by Kyle Fenton) The team will take the lessons learned in Groton and amp up their performance to compete at the next level against 33 teams, including seven others from Rhode Island, in a qualifying event at Smithfield’s Bryant University on March 21 and 22. Winners there will head to the New England district championship a few weeks later in Boston. This year, over 2,000 teams will participate in FIRST Robotics Competition district and regional elimination events, culminating in an international competition in St. Louis, Mo., in late April.

Siblings Andrew and Theodore Thibeault from Middletown initially began their participation with FIRST through its Legos Challenge, designed for younger students. They both joined the robotics team for the 2013 Frisbee Games and have enjoyed the whole process, learning about tools, soldering, and how to develop strategies when unexpected changes are needed. Andrew said that the rules are a lot different this year. “Last year, you could win individually, but this year it’s very team-based.” Theodore added, “Because you don’t know who is in your group, and because of the short time, you figure out what is most valuable and focus on that.”

Unlike most other competitions, FIRST bases its scoring on cooperation as well as performance. Experienced teams even bring extra resources to help rookie teams and anyone who needs something. When one of the Rhode Warrior robot’s tires popped, mentor Keith Quinn of Middletown exhorted, “Let’s go find a pool noodle!” Embracing the spirit of collaboration, other teams scrambled to help locate and assemble a foam piece into the tire tube for a quick and effective fix.

FIRST’s unique teamwork style is called “coopertition.” They have also coined the term “gracious professionalism” to describe the demeanor expected from men- tors and teammates throughout the contest. Dr. Woodie Flowers, FIRST National Advisor, writes that these values produce innovation and empathy.

Mentor and engineer Mike Fenton has been working with FIRST since his son, Kyle, joined the group 15 years ago. He and his wife, Liana, organize and coach the group through the winter building months and during the spring games. According to Mike, “The whole thing is to get kids excited about applying technology. It’s about passing along as much as you can and helping everybody during the competition, not just your own team.”

He continued to explain the process. “It’s a new game every year. After the aerial assist game was announced in early January, we had just six weeks to transform a kit of parts into a working robot.” The kit included the motors, batteries, a control system, a computer, wheels, and a ball, with only limited instructions. The team also ordered aluminum and other parts from a local building store.

Liana Fenton, who is in charge of fundraising, said that the cost of robotic projects is much higher than the Legos technology challenge for younger competitors, which amounts to about $1,000. “With robots, we have to raise between $12,000 and $15,000 every year,” she said.

Following the fundraising and building periods, the games officially run from March through April, but unofficially continue on until the summer. Students work with professional engineer mentors throughout the stages of competition. They also meet other young people from around the world, either in person or online, who are engaged in similar endeavors.

The team is now preparing for the upcoming challenge at Bryant. According to Liana Fenton, the experience is invaluable for all. “Our students learn so much about diagnosing problems, implementing creative ideas, failing, and trying again. The next round will be exciting to see.”

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