Union Robotics Program Builds Engineering, Problem-Solving and Technology Skills

By Mike Whittlesey

Last Week:  The Union Community School District’s robotics program was initiated in 2010 when Bruce Rempe promoted the extracurricular activity that allows students to design and program robots for competitions sponsored by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a not-for-profit organization founded by Dean Kamen and Woodie Flowers.

When Bruce Rempe initially brought the idea of adding a robotics program to the Union School District’s stable of extracurricular programs, he hoped that exposing students to the challenge of building a robot and programming it to compete against other teams would be an activity that resonate with students. For that reason, he chose Union Middle School as the location to launch the new program. If a handful of students showed interest in the program, there would be an opportunity for it to grow as they progressed to the high school. Much to his surprise, 20 students initially signed up for the program. With a limit if ten students per team, the challenge of recruiting additional coaches became an unexpected, but immediate concern.
The following school year, as the second year robotics program expanded to the high, Union had teams competing in the FIRST Lego League at the middle school level, along with its first entry into another level of competition, the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC).
“When students participate in the FIRST Tech Challenge, they are encouraged to think like engineers and scientists,” said Don Bossi, President of FIRST.
FIRST Tech Challenge is one of the fastest growing robotics programs in the world, engaging students in science, technology, engineering, and math. The program is an extension beyond the scope of the FLL program, which is designed for students ages 9-14.
In FIRST Tech Challenge,, the goal of each team is to advance to the next level. Teams typically enter a minimum of two qualifying competitions during the “regular” season, which begins in October and runs through January. From these competitions, teams that advance earn the opportunity to compete at the State Championship tournament.
In September, the 2013-14 robotics competition, FTC BLOCK PARTY! was announced. The press release summarized the competition for participating high school teams:
“Using a combination of motors, controllers, wireless communications, metal gears, and sensors, including infrared tracking (IR) and magnet seeking, students will program their robots to operate in both autonomous and driver-controlled modes on a specially designed 12′ x 12′ field.
The object of the 2013-2014 game is to score more points than an opponent by placing plastic blocks into pendulum goals. Teams will be challenged to raise their team alliance flag up a flagpole, raise their robots off the ground using a platform pull-up bar, and end the match with a balanced pendulum to earn extra points. FTC BLOCK PARTY! matches will last two minutes and 30 seconds, and begin with a 30-second autonomous period followed by a two-minute driver-controlled period. The final 30 seconds of the driver-controlled period is the “end game;” it is during this time that teams can attempt to earn bonus points.”
At a FIRST Tech Challenge tournament, the competition is more than just 150 seconds of robot activity on the foam-mat playing surface. After check-in, each qualifying tournament begins with inspections. During this time, each team’s robot is closely examined against a Hardware Inspection Checklist. Next, a software inspection is conducted, where judges review the game rules that apply to the software that controls each robot. Finally, a field inspection allows judges to check each team’s field setup to confirm the robot is configured, functional, and that the team understands the match process. Failure to pass any of these inspections results in the disqualification of the team.
Teams competing in the FIRST Tech Challenge keep a journal designed to document the team’s journey over time- its activities, actions, successes and failures. It is used as a record that illustrates changes in the team’s thinking over time, the challenges they have faced and how they have responded to those challenges. The journal can include digital photos, notes, sketches and even video footage. While all team members are encouraged to contribute documentation in support of the journal, the overall quality of the notebook is dependent upon the team’s commitment to doing one of the least enjoyable tasks of the FIRST Tech Challenge- taking time to write down the thought process behind the team’s actions.
Teams that create an excellent journal typically have one thing in common- at least one member who is devoted to being their team’s storyteller. In addition to strong writing skills and being detail-oriented, an interest in page layout and presentation are helpful skills to have. With a little creativity and perhaps even a sense of humor, the team’s journal can be transformed from a series of technical notes to something… FUN!

    To compete in the FIRST Tech Challenge, it is not enough to build and program a robot for competition. Along with the knowledge students gain in science, technology and math, are other equally important program goals, such as the development of  self-confidence and life skills. Located in the team’s journal, a few pages under the “OUTREACH” tab, was this entry:
    In November [2013], our team presented the next level of robotics to the Middle School FLL teams. We let them drive the mantis bots. We do this on a yearly basis to increase the amount of FLL students who make the jump up to FTC while transitioning to High School. Considering the fact that last year there was one FTC team at Union, this year there are two, and next year the will most likely be at least three, this presentation really helps the kids to be excited for FTC rather than nervous.

What began as team Robota during the 2012-13 school year at Union High School grew to Robota times two the next. With the influx of FLL students moving up from eighth grade, along with upperclassmen at the high school joining the program, Union had two teams ready to compete in the 2013-14 FTC competition. Rempe kept juniors Nathan Dvorak, Noah Dobson and Grant Mullen together, who, as freshmen, were founding members of  the Union’s FTC program, as the core of one team, Robota Red (#5149). The team was completed with the addition of Gabe Klein and Nathan Acuff.
robota_white    A second high school team, Union’s Robota White (#7500), used the creative technique of self-glossing in their journal to introduce themselves to the judges. Accompanied by photos, the team roster was identified as senior Drake “The Brain” Mossman, juniors Tia “The Designer” Renaud  and Justin “The Supervisor” Rottinghaus, sophomores Zach “The Driver” Patterson and Aubri “The Writer” Mossman and freshmen Connor “The Apprentice” Sherwin and Austin “The Builder” Frush. There would be no confusion for judges regarding the clearly defined roles on this team.
Two teams competing at the high school level, however, meant expenses were going up. Each competition entered would mean two entry fees instead of one. Two teams meant building two robots. And while many parts in FIRST Tech Challenge can be reused from one year to the next, additional materials would still be needed. One thing was certain. As the teams prepared for competition, Robota White and Robota Red were not waiting around for handouts.

    At first glance, the title of the journal entry appeared to be a typo. Upon closer inspection, the quotation marks revealed the play on words:
“Fun”raising and Recruiting!
    On February 12, [2014], a few members of our team drove the robot around our school to raise awareness of our robotics program and also to sell light bulbs. We met and talked with many teachers, explained the Block Party game, and the different components on our robot. They were all very interested and impressed. We then asked them if they would be willing to support us by buying light bulbs from us. We explained all of the great benefits of the bulbs and the benefits of buying them from us. We got almost $50 in immediate orders, many interested that might buy from us, and one $50 donation.

While a FIRST Tech Challenge competition shares common elements that can be found in the world of sports, a set of core values the organization holds dear make the robotics competition a distinctly different experience from, say a football game. While both events employ a clock and the number of points scored define winner from loser, First Tech Challenge places a premium on what it calls Gracious Professionalism, the notion that teams, even opposing ones, have an obligation to help one another.
Dr. Woodie Flowers, FIRST National Advisor and Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and originator of the term, described it in the following way:
“Gracious Professionalism is part of the ethos of FIRST. It’s a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.”
“With Gracious Professionalism, fierce competition and mutual gain are not separate notions. Gracious professionals learn and compete like crazy, but treat one another with respect and kindness in the process. They avoid treating anyone like losers. No chest thumping tough talk, but no sticky-sweet platitudes either. Knowledge, competition, and empathy are comfortably blended.”
“In the long run, Gracious Professionalism is part of pursuing a meaningful life. One can add to society and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing one has acted with integrity and sensitivity.”

    Though neither Union team competed in the state qualifying competition hosted by Linn-Mar High School on November 9, 2013, the results posted online clearly reinforced the important role Gracious Professionalism plays in FIRST Tech Challenge:
    “As this is still early in the season, the volunteers are starting to see great examples of teams helping other teams. During the Nov. 9 event, Team #5280 did not pass inspection due to the fact they had a pre-manufactured part; team #4150 and #4324 opened up their shop to allow them time to make the part. Team #3866 was having connection errors and three teams came to their rescue. Gracious Professionalism is a great way of life!”

In 2013-14, the FTC BLOCK PARTY! season introduced another layer to the overall advancement structure. Teams competing in the United States will advance from state or regional-level Championship Tournaments to one of four Super-Regional Championship Tournaments, before they can advance to the FTC World Championship in St. Louis, Missouri. The new event structure was designed to allow FTC to keep its merit-based advancement structure while the program continues its rapid growth. Teams who win at a State Championship will have the opportunity to advance to a high-quality, multi-region, two-day event – a Super-Regional. The four Super Regional tournaments will be hosted in Northern California, Texas, Iowa, and Pennsylvania.
In its first year competing at the FTC level, the Union robotics team did the unthinkable- advancing to compete at the State Championship Tournament in 2012. Two years later, with a pair of teams preparing to compete in the FTC BLOCK PARTY!, Robota White and Robota Red had their eyes on a bigger prize- the Super Regional Competition to be held at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, April 3-5, 2014.

    Next Week: As the 2013-14 FIRST Tech Challenge season gets underway, two teams from Union High School, Robota White and Robota Red, compete for the right to advance to the State Championship Tournament and perhaps, beyond.