It started out as a joke. Not a funny, “ha-ha” sort of joke. More along the lines of “Wouldn’t it be incredible if we had a FIRST Robotics Competition team at Union High School?”
FIRST is an acronym that reads For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The Union robotics program got its start several years ago at Union Middle School. “Steel of the Knights” robotics, while not an officially sanctioned extracurricular activity at Union, continues to grow, as the initial core group of students advanced to the high school and was joined by others curious to try the “ultimate sport for the mind.”
FIRST was founded by Dean Kamen, best known as the inventor of the Segway. In 1992, 28 teams competed in the organization’s inaugural robotics competition. Since that time, the program has grown to involve more than 450,000 students competing in four distinct programs. During the 2015-16 school year, Union had teams competing in the First Lego League (FLL), a program for students in grades 4-8, and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), which is designed for grades 7-12.
With several Union teams active and excelling at FLL and FTC competitions, there remained one last challenge to be met, a significant one to be sure, in terms of both complexity and cost. The FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) is the crown jewel of robotics competitions. Developed for students ages 14-18, FRC is a competition designed to simulate the real world engineering environment. According to FIRST, in just six weeks, each team must “raise funds, design a team ‘brand,’ hone teamwork skills, and build and program robots to play a difficult field game against like-minded competitors.”
A year ago at this time, Wes Hanson and Zeke Seuser traveled to St. Louis, where Zeke’s father, Chad, was working as a judge at FIRST’s culminating 2016 World Championship robotics competition. While there, the high school students spent some time watching FRC matches, taking in the spectacle of a competition that was different than the FTC matches to which they were accustomed. As they watched, a grand idea began to form. And with two simple sentences, Zeke Seuser recalled the words that started it all.
“Hey, we should start an FRC team. That would be fun.”
If the thought of adding a new, higher level robotics team to the Steel of the Knights program began as a joke, no one is laughing now. Upon returning to Iowa, the conversation turned serious, as the teens considered the merits of the idea in more depth.
“Okay, we could actually do this. This would be really helpful for a lot of people.” And in the words of Zeke Seuser, “It just kind of took off from there.”
While every FRC team competes with a common set of elements, including motors, controllers, radios and other parts, teams have just six weeks to design and program a robot capable of completing a number of tasks in an arena roughly the size of a volleyball court. That five other robots are simultaneously trying to do the same thing at the same time only complicates matters.
Given the relatively brief history of the Union Community School District’s robotics program, the time, energy and enthusiasm invested by students, their mentors and school staff has resulted in some phenomenal accomplishments, as Union teams regularly advance to participate at state-level competitions. Twice, Union FTC teams have advanced all the way to Super Regional events.
Union’s newest team, Fiercely Uknighted Nation (F.U.N.) #6630, has ventured into the top level of robotics competitions with fewer members than the average FRC team. Many FRC teams have been competing for years, and that experience can help streamline the process of building and programming a robot, leaving valuable time to explore more advanced programming and design elements.
With the inherent disadvantages “rookie” teams face, expectations for newbie FRC teams are generally low. In Union’s case, the team had just one scrimmage to test their robot before competing against 53 other teams at the Iowa Regional Competition held on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa in late March.
If there’s one thing the Fiercely Uknighted Nation has learned over the past 12 weeks, it is to keep the advice of their mentors close by during the stresses of competition. While it’s not always easy to “relax” and “be comfortable” in such an environment, the students are quick to admit that such abilities make for improved teamwork and a better end result. As the Union team battled for success at the Iowa Regional, they took their mentors’ advice to heart and the unthinkable happened. The FieRCely Uknighted Nation’s performance earned them the opportunity to join an alliance that would compete for the regional championship!
In the 2017 FRC arena of competition, the endgame, or final action robots are challenged to complete, requires the robot to climb a rope. Prior to the regional competition, the Union team knew their robot lacked a climbing mechanism. With everything that had to get done, there simply had not been enough time to address that challenge. After the initial excitement they felt when it was announced their team would compete for the regional championship, a grim reality soon set in. Against the top teams they would face in the finals, there was very little chance they would succeed without a climbing mechanism.
First coined by Dr. Woodie Flowers, the term “Gracious Professionalism®” is described as “a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community. Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy, but treat one another with respect and kindness in the process.”
With just 90 minutes to prepare for the Iowa Regional championship match, Fiercely Uknighted Nation met with their alliance partners from Duluth, Minnesota and Hatton/Northwood, North Dakota. No climbing mechanism? No problem. Thanks to a classic example of Gracious Professionalism, the teams worked together to share the knowledge and technology Union’s team lacked. In less than an hour and a half, a functional climbing mechanism was installed, wired and programmed on the Union robot.
As it turned out, Union’s alliance did not win the championship match, but their performance throughout the competition resulted in their advancement to compete in the final FRC event of the year, the World Championships. Once again, Union High School students would be making a trip to St. Louis in April. This time, they won’t be the ones watching the competition. Instead, the competition will be watching them.
Rookie FRC teams are not expected to enjoy such early success. Chad Seuser, one of eight adult mentors who have invested hundreds of hours working with the Union team, believes the philosophy of encouraging students to work together and solve their problems as a team is the best way the mentors can help them succeed.
Now, as they prepare to compete against the best teams the world has to offer, he said, “My hope is for them to compete like crazy and have fun. We are so proud of what they’ve accomplished.”
Wes Hanson: FIRST Dean’s List Honoree
Among the incredible accomplishments Union’s FRC team has made in their first year of competition, is the FIRST Dean’s List Award presented to Wes Hanson at the Iowa Regional Competition in March.
The Dean’s List Award began in 2010 to celebrate outstanding student leaders whose passion for and effectiveness at attaining FIRST ideals is exemplary. In an effort to recognize the leadership and dedication of the most outstanding FRC students, the Kamen family sponsors this award for the selected top students.
Because the students who earn the Dean’s List Award status are great examples of student leaders who have led their teams and communities to increased awareness for FIRST and its mission, while achieving personal technical expertise and accomplishment, it is extremely rare for the award to be presented to a member of a first-year team, making Hanson’s accomplishment even more remarkable.
Hanson was nominated by a mentor who has worked with his team, #6630 Fiercely Uknighted Nation. His selection as recipient of the award was based on the following criteria:
- Demonstrated leadership and commitment to the ideals of FIRST
- Interest in and passion for a long term commitment to FIRST
- Overall individual contribution to their team
- Technical expertise and passion
- Entrepreneurship and creativity
- Ability to motivate and lead fellow team members
- Effectiveness at increasing awareness of FIRST in their school and community
Funding the Fiercely Uknighted Nation
Stepping up to the most challenging level of robotics competition includes a big step up in financial support, as well. For example, before the Fiercely Uknighted Nation can compete in the World Championships in St. Louis, April 24-26, they must submit an entree fee of $5,000. Fortunately, a grant from the John Deere Foundation will cover this cost.
Fiercely Uknighted Nation is grateful for the ongoing support they’ve received from their families, Union Community Schools and other supporters throughout the competition season. They also appreciate the support of the following corporate sponsors: The John Deere Foundation, Beals Sheet Metal, the FIRST Foundation, The Leighty Foundation, Mitchell® International, DuPont Pioneer (Robert Hanson/sales agency) and Tharp Design. Local sponsors who have generously contributed to a second wave of recent fundraising efforts include Pipho Family Dentistry, the La Porte City Lions Club, Security State Bank in Dysart, and Cans for Kids.
As the team prepares to compete at the World Championships, a Go Fund Me page has been established in an effort to raise the funds to cover the additional expenses for travel and competition supplies that will be incurred. If you would like to make a contribution, logon to https://www.gofundme.com/union-knights-frc-robotics-6630.
Donation cans also have been placed at local businesses in Dysart and La Porte City. The team thanks you for your support!