Fans jammed the grandstand as creatively-clad teams prepared to invade the spotlight stage at Auburn High School’s Bob Jones Gym last Saturday.
For combatants and their finely-tuned robots, it was March Madness, an intense mechanical competition in a spartan-like-arena atmosphere.
“It’s a sporting event for the mind,” said Kim Markham, coach of Auburn Riverside’s 15-member, first-year robotics team, which designed and engineered Hello World 5683. “This is our first competition, and every time we work out a little bit, we get a little bit better, so we are optimistic moving forward.”
Markham’s crew was among 34 teams from Washington and one from Anchorage, Alaska – the Nerds from the North – that battled for points, prestige and advancement at the two-day FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition. Top teams from the sanctioned event, which attracted more than 1,000 students, qualified for the Pacific Northwest FIRST Championship in Portland, Ore., April 5-7.
Under strict rules, limited resources and time limits, teams composed of up to 28 students (grades 9-12) are challenged to raise funds, design a team brand and build and program robots to perform prescribed tasks against the competition. In match play, students drive robots to execute moves – such as grab, lift and place cubes on scales – while trying to outmaneuver other robots.
Professional mentors like Markham, a robot programmer for The Boeing Co., volunteer their time, or work part-time, to share their expertise to guide teams in circumstances designed to replicate real-world engineering and require problem-solving skills that take into account science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) principles.
“We enjoy it,” Markham said of the challenge. “There’s always glitches, but those are learning opportunities. We work through those, so every round we get a little better. … Being our first competition, our drivers haven’t had a lot of practice … and we had the ’bot built in six weeks … so there’s a lot to design and engineer.”
Hello World 5683 played defense, took some early lumps but persevered, winning four of its first 12 matches.
Two more seasoned robotics programs – Auburn High’s Team 3219 TREAD and Auburn Mountainview’s Team 2907 Lion Robotics – rose to the occasion last weekend. TREAD received the Gracious Professionalism Award, sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, and Lion Robotics was a district event winner.
For TREAD team member Alec Acosta-Vega, the challenge of being a part of ’bot 3219 called Pick and Flick, is a thrill.
“It’s a crazy experience for me,” said Acosta-Vega, a sophomore. “I did robotics through my middle school years, and being able to upgrade from little Lego robots to something big is crazy. I love being on it. I would rather do nothing else with my time than work on my robot.”
The robotics showdown brings together students of many ethnic and educational backgrounds for a common mission – to survive, learn something new and advance.
“It’s amazing … being on a team with different languages and coming from different nations,” said Mariama Kante, a junior at Nathan Hale High School and a member of the Seattle World School robotics team who is originally from Senegal, West Africa. “When we work, we work together. When we laugh, we laugh together. When we cry, we cry together.”
Auburn Mountainview High School hosts a FIRST Robotics competition on March 30-31.
Learn more at firstwa.org.