NHS robotics team grows fast

NEGAUNEE – Negaunee High School’s fledgling For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics Team made it to the semi-finals of a district competition recently, using a robot of their own design and construction.

The high school students’ FIRST Robotics Team is still in its infancy – but in its second year it’s already doubled its members. Fourteen NHS students spent six weeks creating a robot to compete in two of 15 district games that took place in Michigan as part of this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition,

The first, in Escanaba, was the Upper Peninsula’s inaugural robot match-up. At the second, in downstate Traverse City in late March, the young team placed third in the qualifying round and made it to the semi-finals before being eliminated.

“It was pretty awesome for a second-year team,” said Scott Washburn, technology coordinator at Negaunee Public Schools and the team’s mentor. “We were really excited about it.”

Making it to the semi finals in Traverse City was a marked improvement over their performance in Escanaba the previous week, when they made it through qualifying to place 21st of 24 teams in the elimination round. Washburn attributes the difference to the learning curve of a rookie team and the enthusiasm of teammates’ parents.

“It’s only our second year, but three-quarters of our team were brand new this year, so they didn’t really know what to expect,” he said. “And then after the parents saw the Escanaba competition, they all got on board. In one week we had so much more help. We just had more of a plan. … We got in a groove and we just did really good.”

After the state competition at Eastern Michigan University in downstate Ypsilanti, and the state rankings were completed and the team placed 101st of 277 teams in Michigan – a standing that Washburn said the team is “very happy with.”

The FIRST Robotics Competition is an international event for high school students – a “varsity sport for the mind” that “combines the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology,” according to its website. Teams have to raise their own funds to design, build and program a robot for performing tasks necessary for that year’s competition. This year’s game was called “aerial assist.”

In aerial assist, robots from three different teams are randomly assigned to form an alliance. The robots from two alliances, each controlled by a student chosen by their respective teams, are placed on a flat field measuring 25 feet by 54 feet and must score as many balls as possible in several different goals in each two-and-a-half minute match. The more the alliances work together – passing the balls back and forth, throwing and catching balls passed over a truss suspended five feet above the field – the higher their score.

While teams were limited to spending a maximum of $400 per part, there was no limit to the number of parts, and teams from big schools with ample budgets, or teams that get fully sponsored by an outside source don’t even have to build their own robots.

“There’s teams who – the students design it, then they ship it to a company, then they build it for them,” NHS junior Joe Uren said.

“There’s big teams downstate that they actually … pay big companies to build these robots,” Washburn said. “And they’re fully sponsored by these companies. But like I said, it’s not just a little high school sport. It’s huge.”

In the featureless beige and brown basement at NHS, a little more than a month before their first competition in Escanaba, teammates worked to assemble their robot and install it with a gyroscope.

“Our robot, we’re going to have this … spinning wheel that’ll pull the ball into the robot, we can drive it around, we can spin the wheel the other way to reverse it and push the ball out,” NHS senior Eric Rigling said. “We’re going to pass it between other robots and stuff. We want to use a gyroscope because it’ll tell us what angle … we have on it … so we can get it the same every time so we can get it into (the robot) without any trouble.”

It’s a design the team did not arrive at easily.

“We’ve changed this design probably about 30 times,” Washburn said.

How successful did the design end up being?

“It worked perfect,” Washburn said. “When you’re at a competition, other teams will kind of walk around, and there’s certain ones that they’ll really keep an eye on. … We were asked a lot of questions, and it was a really good feeling. You could tell that people really liked the design. It was very simple, yet it worked.”

Washburn said that he didn’t see any other robots that looked like theirs and added: “It was really neat to have a completely different design.”

The team, with its burgeoning membership and the growing enthusiasm and involvement of team parents, has now decided to make the robotics team a year-round program.

“The competitions are only in March, April … but this summer we’re going to put on classes on teaching the technology and different things that we can look at for the future so they’re not trying to learn it all while they’re building,” Washburn said.

The team is also planning to enter Ishpeming and Negaunee, and possibly Marquette’s, Fourth of July parades this summer to raise awareness about the team among community members and “they can kind of see us, and we can get to know them and maybe get more sponsors, maybe more mentors, people that are in the engineering field that would want to come and help us,” Washburn said.

They’re also going to step up recruitment efforts, with the team’s returning sophomores planning to visit Negaunee Middle School to give a presentation on robotics, tell them about the team and let the soon-to-be freshman pilot the robot.

“It’s looking like our program is just going to fly,” Washburn said. “It’s just going to grow from this point.”

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401. His email address is zjay@miningjournal.net.