Our work on the Nintendo WiiFit controlled Robotic Labyrinth project for Science City is taking a time out this week so we can volunteer at the FIRST Robotics Competition. Members of our Kansas City Robotics Society (KCRS) help as mentors and staff various positions at the competition. This year our Cowtown Computer Congress (CCCKC) group has some members helping too as we prepare for the grand opening of our Underground Hacker Space March 2 – 7.
This is my fourth year helping with FIRST but my first year without a team. I’ve volunteered the last three years as a mentor for Winnetonka High School Team 1752 but this year their school didn’t enter the competition. So, I wanted to capture some of the behind-the-scenes excitement that a casual observer could miss. Hopefully you can see how important it is for students to have an opportunity to participate in this great program.
Sights And Sounds From The Greater Kansas City Regional FRC Experience.
A calm before the storm at the 2009 FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), Greater Kansas City Regional February 26 through 28 at Hale Arena. FIRST means “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”. FRC is a varsity level sport of the mind challenging students to discover the rewarding life of engineers, scientists and researchers.
The Kansas City Regional was host to 61 teams from Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin
As the competition heated up inside, by Saturday we were treated to a blast of midwest weather dropping about 5 inches of snow outside.
Lunacy Around The World.
Each year a different challenge and theme is announced simultaneously around the world at the Kickoff Event. High school students learn about the game and with only six weeks to design, build, and deliver a robot for competition. This year’s challenge theme is Lunacy. The official rules and information is available from the US First web site. Each robot must conform to the official competition manual.
Every team receives a kit of parts that comprise standard components for their robots but much of the design and construction is up to each team to acquire additional materials and parts as needed. You will see as many different designs as there are teams competing. One of the best sources of information and support throughout the year is the online community provided by another FIRST team , Chief Delphi #47.
These robots are about the size of a washing machine and weigh close to 120 pounds. These are surprisingly sophisticated machines with computerized components helping them operate in autonomous mode and under a separate driver operated mode.
The Greater Kansas City Regional
When I tell people what an FRC regional competition is like I tell them, its like a rock concert, a professional sporting event, and a NASCAR race all rolled into one. You’ll see students and adults dancing in the isles when a time-out is called on the competition field. The competition is second to none as fans cheer for their favorite team’s alliance. Throughout the competition you will find yourself cheering for nearly every team out there. If you’re around the pits you’ll see as much activity as any NASCAR pit crew when these robots are repaired and tuned up for the next round of competition.
It takes a lot of planning and work to host a regional competition site. The venue is staffed by volunteers determined to make this a safe and enjoyable competition for all the students, teachers, mentors, parents and audience members.
The Kansas City Regional site has one of the most spacious settings in the country. There are wide isles for people getting around the competition floor, team spirit areas just outside the competition floor, plenty of seating in the stands, and a large practice area for the robots.
The isles in the pit areas can accomodate the traffic but you still need to watch out for robots being transported from the pits to competition and practice areas.
When problems arise that require serious machine work, the teams have an on-site machine shop available to help rebuild or replace parts they need.
Safety Is Taken Seriously
FRC is compriesed of a series of competitions within the competition. Awards are given out for a variety of acheivements, one in particular is the Underwriters Laboratories Industrial Safety Award.
With the powerful robots, power tools, and electricty around so many students and adults, safety is taken seriously. During the elimination rounds on Friday I volunteered to make sure that anyone entering the pits had a pair of safety glasses on and made sure no one entered with open toe shoes.
If you’re around the FIRST culture you will hear about Gracious Professionalism.
A few years ago Devry University in Kansas City held a Robotics Bootcamp for area high schools. Some of the schools invited to the event have been bitter sports rivals for years. This caused genuine concern about whether violence would break out at the event. Its a shame this kind of atmosphere is prevalent and accepted in many schools today. The bootcamp event took place without any incidents, gracious professionalism was an important part of making this event success.
Strategy Among Alliance Members
One of the reasons gracious professionalism works so well is in the game’s design. It is easy to recognize the reason for cooperation among all the teams at a regional competition. There are six teams participating in each round of the competition. Team members are divided up among two alliances, the red and blue alliance.
While you are competing against members of the opposing alliance for a particular round, certain team members will probably be on your alliance in future rounds. Helping other teams to perform to their best ability will help your team at times throughout the competition.
Scouting to learn the strengths and weaknesses of your alliance members is an important part of the competition strategy.
Mentors As Team Members
The teams participating in the FIRST Robotic Challenge are high school aged students but an important member of many teams are their mentors. Many mentors are engineers, scientists, or other professionals from technical and non-technical fields of work. Parents may function as mentors but often mentors have no other connection to the students or school other than wanting to help promote inspiration in the fields of science and technology.
When I was in high school I was afraid to admit that I was interested in electronics because of the associated stigma and possible ridicule from other students. FIRST is a great program because it celebrates those interests and gives the students a great avenue to share with others. I wish there was a program like that when I was in high school!
Chris D. Locke
Senior Software Engineer
Helping as a mentor has many intangible benefits. The Winnetonka High School TeamTonka #1752 displayed this sign at their 2006 regional competition in Denver CO. They were originally discouraged from hanging this up but when I heard about it I wanted it to be displayed. It was a hit at their pit area and I’m proud of the work they did on their robot. It was signed by the team members and is one of my most treasured souveniers. It is touching looking over these names again knowing how many have gone on to college and universities. Especially those who went on to study engineering at the University of Missouri Rolla (now Missouri University of Science and Technology). I really missed not being a mentor this year.
What Does FIRST Mean to Parents and Students?
Hopefully you can begin to sense that this is not just another school activity or club, it is the beginning of a lifestyle that can be carried on throughout every student’s career. This is the first and perhaps the only experience many students learn about life in a creative and technical world awaiting after high school. This is an important time in their life to become aware of career possibilities that are within their reach.
Dean Kamen, mentioned in the last video, has contributed so much to our world. In addition to starting the FIRST organization he is probably best know for inventing the Segway Personal Transporter. His company DEKA Research is known for developing products in the medical field including home dialysis machines, medical irrigation pumps, the IBOT mobile self balancing wheel chair, among many other inventions.
“You have teenagers thinking they’re going to make millions as NBA stars when that’s not realistic for even 1 percent of them. Becoming a scientist or engineer is.”
The FIRST Lifestyle
The FRC build season lasts six weeks through most of January and February but the momentum carries on much longer, often with weekly meetings through the end of the school year. For some students, summer time is prime time for car wash, garage sales and other fundraising opportunities. Preparation gearing up to the build season often starts at the beginning of the school year as students are busy learning new technologies.
During build season I’ve heard teachers tell about getting cell phone calls if they’re running a little late getting to school in the morning. Students are calling wanting to get into the building to work on the robots.
I have attended weekly meetings after the build season ended and often heard teachers telling students they need to go home when the meeting time has finished. Usually it took several more times before they would actually go home.
I have witnessed some amazing transformations in students just over the three days of a regional competition. During Winnetonka’s trip to the 2006 regional in Denver I saw some quiet and reserved students really open up and become more outgoing and confident. Talking to their parents a few weeks later they said it was unbelievable how much their child changed.
Teachers Need Our Help Finding Resources.
I have a lot of respect for the teachers involved with FIRST. This is a huge commitment of their time, often with little additional financial compensation. More than once I hear about teachers buying tools and parts out of their own pocket. During the six week build period their families pay the price as they spend long hours keeping the school open for students working on their projects.
What does it take to build a successful robotics program at school?
Shaping a Robotics Team
FIRST provides a growth path up to the FRC varsity level activity. The FIRST Technical Challenge (FTC) offers a way of building robots on a smaller scale and using simpler technologies. Some teams think of FTC as a junior varsity level activity. It is less expensive to get started but competitions are not currently offered in the Kansas City area so travel expenses drive up the cost for teams participating at this level.
FIRST LEGO League
At the middle school age group the FIRST Lego League (FLL) is becoming popular. It is an affordable activity based on the LEGO Mindstorm NXT robot kit. A retail version of the robot costs around $250 which is within reach of parents wanting to encourage their child’s experimentation. This robot controller is currently supported at the FTC level too making the use of these kits even more attractive.
Opportunities For College and University Recruiters
Participation in FIRST provides important opportunities for students in the form of scholarships. When you attend a regional competition you’ll find information booths with recruiters from a variety of colleges and universities. There are over $9 million available for FIRST students.
University of Kansas
UMKC – University of Missouri, Kansas City
A Regional Competition Is About Having Fun
This is a great time to let loose and have fun.
You’ll find adults enjoying this experience as much as the students.
There is so much to see and experience at a regional competition. Of course it is the robots that everyone wants to see and getting up close on the action is a privilege these students earn.
Greater Kansas City Regional Championship Rounds.
First round of the championship competition.
When a time out get called a party breaks out too.
Second and final round of the championship.
Filed under: Robotics | Tagged: CCCKC, FIRST, FIRST 2009, FRC, Gracious Professionalism, Hacker Space, Kansas City Regional, Kansas City Robotics Society, KCRS, Lunacy, NASCAR, Robotics, Science City | Leave a comment »