“We have a great mix of different thinking and skill types on our team!!”

In the first of what would become hundreds of hours invested in the project, the team was off to a good start. The journal notation summarized the three initial tasks that defined their first hour together:

  • “Brainstorm robot designs”
  • “Figure out strategic plan”
  • “Get to know team and plan out our tasks accordingly”

When building a robot from the ground up, what design scheme would prove to be most efficient? When programming the robot’s movements, what sequence of action would allow it to score a maximum number of points? These were just some of the challenges that would test the team in the days and weeks ahead.

And while the parameters of designing and programming the robot were clear, and the process was deliberately left open to engage their considerable collective problem-solving skills, the team was not satisfied with just getting it to work. They wanted to win.

 

For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen and Woodie Flowers. Kamen, an entrepreneur and inventor, is perhaps best known for his work creating the Segway PT, the personal transportation vehicles more commonly seen in larger metropolitan areas. A not-for-profit public charity, FIRST is supported by a network of more than 3,500 sponsors which include corporations, as well as educational and professional institutions. FIRST’s outreach will exceed 350,000 students and $19 million in scholarships in 2014, through its educational programs and competitions. Its motto? To create a world where science and technology are celebrated… where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes.

In 1992, the organization launched the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), a contest designed to give high school students real-world experience working with engineers to develop a robot. By 2009, over 3,000 high school teams throughout the world participated in the annual competition. With entry-level kits and registration fees costing around $6,000 and rules that allow teams to spend another $3,500 on their robots, the competition is not cheap.

 

“Six weeks. Identical kits. No instructions. All assembly required.”

The program was called Gearing Up. Produced by KETC in St. Louis, the documentary film chronicled the behind-the-scenes action leading up to the 2008 FIRST Robotics National Competition. Flipping channels in his rural La Porte City home one day, Bruce Rempe came upon the robotics documentary airing on the local PBS station. It immediately captured and held his attention. As Vice President of the Bozeman, Montana-based company, Trakkers, Rempe’s primary responsibilities are mostly technology-related, from the innovative products the company develops for the Event Industry, to the infrastructure that allows members of the company to effectively collaborate from wherever they may be located in the world.

Rempe had watched, with admiration, the countless hours parents and coaches associated with the Marshalltown Football League invested in local youth, teaching them the sport of football. As he watched Gearing Up, the thought that students in the Union Community School District could successfully participate in a robotics competition came to his mind. The idea that such an extracurricular program could serve as an opportunity for him to give back, to use his expertise to help educate and inspire Union students also intrigued him. It was a commitment he was ready to make.

 

While it can be confusing for a newcomer to understand what happens at a robotics competition, the matches that take place do share some universal truths with the sporting world, albeit some with an interesting twist or two:

  •  Points are scored with the successful completion of tasks defined prior to the match. In football, for example, touchdowns are worth six points, field goals three. In a robotics competition, points are also awarded for the successful completion of tasks. The more challenging the task, the greater number of points awarded.
  •  The clock plays an important role in the game. When time runs out, so does the opportunity to score. In basketball, a shot clock can dictate how much time the team has to shoot the ball. At a robotics competition, there are also time limits that restrict scoring opportunities.
  •  Good teammates make a difference and increase the likelihood of success. In football, running backs typically credit their offensive line for the yardage they are able to gain. In robotics, the contributions team members make in the time leading up to a competition make a big impact on the team’s ability to succeed and advance. On the day of competition, however, the concept of teammates takes on a whole new meaning, as competing teams join forces to form an alliance.

Some six years after the launch of FRC, FIRST rolled out a new competition called the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Like the FIRST Robotics competition, the program involves the creation of a robot, though on a much, much smaller scale. The FLL is also designed to bring the robotics experience to a younger group of students, 9-14 year olds, who utilize LEGO Mindstorm sets to build small, palm-sized robots that can be programmed to complete simple tasks. Because of its association with the Lego Group and the program’s relatively low startup costs, FLL enjoys the most extensive participation of the competitions sponsored by FIRST. In 2009, nearly 15,000 teams from around the world participated in FLL competitions, almost ten times the number of teams participating in FRC.

Seven years after the launch of FLL, the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) competition was introduced. The FTC competition was created to bridge the gap between the elementary and middle school-aged students participating in FLL and the high school students engaged in the more costly, larger scale FRC program. Robots created in the FTC, while much larger and more sophisticated than their FLL counterparts, are just one-third the size of the robots that are used to compete in FRC.

In 2014, 3,236 teams consisting of more than 32,000 students in grades 7-12 will have participated in the FIRST Tech Challenge. Competing among them in the qualifying and championship tournaments, and hoping to advance to the FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship held in St. Louis in late April, were two teams from Union High School.

 

Less than a month before the competition in Mount Vernon, the team was making progress refining the design of their robot, as noted in the journal entry dated 10-17-13:

Test Observations:

  • Servo moves gripper very slowly- need to increase servo speed in program & test again
  •  Wrist motor holds, but stopped working… troubleshoot
  •  Arm and wrist motor still jerky (new smoother program wasn’t tested) – need to redownload & test program

 

When Bruce Rempe first announced his desire to sponsor a robotics program for Union Community Schools in 2010, he initially thought school officials wanted to talk him out of pursuing the idea. There were no specific objections raised about the program itself. In fact, school officials agreed it had merit. There were, however, concerns about establishing and maintaining the program over time. What would happen to the program if Rempe had to step away from it? Another concern about adding a new extracurricular activity was funding. There simply weren’t any dollars in the budget to support a robotics program.

Undeterred, Rempe believed that starting with a group as small as three or four students, a robotics program could flourish at Union if it was established at a point that could allow for future growth. Given the distance between the district’s two elementary schools, it didn’t make sense to start the program at that level. Since the FLL program is designed for students through the eighth grade, let’s see if we can put together a middle school team, he reasoned. With the approval of the school district, literature about a potential robotics program was set out during registration for the 2010-11 school year, in hopes of attracting enough interest to form a team.

The rules of the FIRST Lego League clearly state that the maximum number of students per team be capped at ten. Following registration, Rempe was surprised to discover that 20 students had expressed interest and signed up for the fledgling program. Suddenly, he had two teams.