On an unseasonably warm mid-November afternoon, members of the St. Albert High School robotics team Thunderstruck were hard at work tweaking their robot and honing their operating skills for the upcoming weekend’s match.
Students flitted in and out of the “robotics lab” where the 11-member team has set up shop. A few students are gathered around a pair of gaming controllers as they familiarize themselves with the twitchy robot — named Cumberbot, after actor Benedict Cumberbatch — sitting inside a 12-square-foot playing field bestrewn with obstacles.
The students are attempting to move the robot across the playing field without it getting stuck beneath the trusses that sit midfield.
A couple other students are huddled in a corner of the room where they tinker with another robot — Watson, so named more for Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick than the “Jeopardy”-playing IBM computer. Watson will have a different configuration than Cumberbot, for a different style of gameplay.
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“My favorite part is building (the robots),” said senior Oliva Gardner. “We came up with a new idea (for Watson). We’re gonna have, like, a spinning intake … and it’s going to suck up two of the pixels and then we’re just gonna spit them out over there.”
The gameplay itself is not as important as how the students work together to achieve the goal, whether it’s stacking plastic cones on top of one another or fitting a six-sided plastic disk — a pixel — onto a board. The higher you can stack them, the more points you get.
In addition to scoring points during the match, teams are also judged on what tournament organizer FIRST calls “gracious professionalism,” which it defines as “a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.”
So not only does their robot have to perform well under pressure, so do the students. Communication, teamwork and sportsmanship are all key skills that students come away with, regardless of what profession they choose to pursue after graduation.
Gardner and fellow senior Lily Barnes are the only two girls on the team, and both have been participating in FIRST’s competitions since fourth grade, initially in LEGO League and now in the Tech Challenge.
“Ever since fourth grade, we’ve been able to compete and the game changes a little, every year it’s different, but then, from LEGO League to this FIRST Tech Challenge, it’s a big difference,” Gardner said.
Gardner’s father Lynn and Barnes’ mother Andrea are the team coaches.
In the three tournaments Thunderstruck has played in so far this year, the team has won 11 of 17 matches — good enough to be tied for second place in its league. The team hopes to top their best finish, which was 12th place in last year’s state championship, in the eight years the team has existed.
The five Thomas Jefferson High School robotics teams are also off to a great start in their VEX Robotics league.
With four tournaments under their belt, two TJ teams have come in second, one has won the design award, and another team won the judges award.
There are 25 students at TJ who participate in its robotics program, which is why they’re split up into so many teams.
TJ robotics coach Shannon Dunlap has been pleased to see a lot of growth on the school’s teams between each tournament, not only in the students’ programming or operating skills, but in social skills as well.
“The biggest goal of robotics is lifelong skills, soft skills,” Dunlap said. “They have to interview, they have to document their entire process so that they can explain, ‘this happened poorly, we did this kind of testing to fix it, this is what we did next, or this is our goal, and we’re trying to build this to make that happen.’”
Students also have to learn how to work well not only with each other, but also with teams from other schools.
“They have to work with other teams, have good conversations and planning and strategy, so a lot of those soft skills that people don’t think about,” Dunlap said. “When people think about robotics, they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re smart, you built a robot,’ but they also have to communicate that.”
Dunlap said that tournaments also present an opportunity for students who might otherwise not engage with their peers to interact with like-minded kids.
“Because they have to interact with the other teams, you see kids come out of their shell,” she said. “Kids that don’t talk to anybody, all of a sudden they’re talking to everybody and interacting and trying to get information about everybody else’s robots, so they know who to pair with.”
Abraham Lincoln High School also has four VEX teams that are just getting started in tournament play.
All four participated in their first tournament of the year on Saturday, Nov. 18, “Battle in the Bluffs,” with two teams — The Chefs and Bobus Virdibus — placing in the top 10.