I expected a quiet afternoon watching introverts perform their brain games. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I loved it.
I walked into Lincoln High School’s gymnasium to the sound of an announcer shouting over thumping rock ‘n roll. The crowd was loud and riveted on the fast-paced and intense robotic action in the arena. I was jostled around in the milling throng as I searched for the Dreadbots, Dexter High School’s robotics team.
It was March Madness of a different sort, and I understood none of it. One of the robots in the arena finished stacking cubes, raced over to a rope and climbed it. The crowd lost their minds in the adrenaline rush of a conquest and the match of was over. Things settled down, but had the feel of a UFC match in between rounds.
I found the Dreadbots (AKA Team 3656) camped out in the bleachers and team member Aden Angus was assigned the task of explaining what this was all about. Above the noise, I learned from Aden that the event was a FIRST competition. FIRST is an acronym For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.
From their website, I learned that FIRST is a non-profit corporation in southeast Michigan whose mission is “to establish a sustainable FIRST Robotics Competition team at every high school in Michigan.” FIRST has created leagues as early as the elementary school level up through high school to foster interest in robotics.
Another match had begun in the arena and things got louder. I shouted to Aden to explain what was going on. He did his best. I was a dog watching television. I knew something was happening, but what exactly? Aden explained it was something called a “Power-Up Game.”
Robots were scurrying around the arena lifting cubes onto a giant balance scale. The goal was to tilt the scale in your favor longer than the other bots. There was also something called “The Switch” which looked just like the balance scale only at ground level. Robots could put cubes on this too. Another, more mysterious move was robots retrieving cubes and bringing them back to team members who stacked them in a strange looking cabinet for a mind-blowing algorithm of point accumulation. Toward the end of the match, one of the bots raced to a rope and climbed it. Everybody cheered. I cheered. That part I got.
The FIRST Robotics Competition combines the excitement of a varsity sport with hands-on training in science and technology to help high school students discover how rewarding a career in engineering or technology can be. Remote-controlled robots, piloted by students and cheered on by thousands of screaming fans, go head-to-head in short games on the floor of a sports arena, battling it out to earn points during a two-minute round.
The Dreadbots were next in the arena. I couldn’t help but think of the movie Gladiator – “Are you not entertained?!” I was. I had no clue but caught up in the excitement, I still felt “into it.” The horn sounded and the bots burst into action. Greg Babe took over for Aden and explained Dexter was focusing on the balance scale, which they seemed to control throughout the match. As the clock wound down, Dexter’s robot, named Apollo after the Apollo spacecraft so they could reach for the stars, raced over to the rope and deftly climbed it thanks to their “advanced climbing mechanism” as Greg explained.
This was a qualifying match. At the end of all the qualification matches, the Dreadbots would be ranked #2 with a record of 15-4-0. This gave them the right to Captain the #2 alliance meaning the Dreadbots would choose two other teams to play with through the finals. For partners they chose Cow Town Robotics (Team 5050) from Carleton, and the WARHBOTS (Team 6618) from Flat Rock. All three teams are recognized as finalists and would earn points toward advancing to States.
In the end, Apollo and the Dreadbots would make a great run for the gold only to lose in a tie-breaker and ultimately bringing home silver medals. The Dreadbots and the #2 alliance also set a WORLD WIDE high score of 490 points (without penalties) in match 2 of the Quarter Finals. By “world”, I literally mean a world record for match points. This is an international sport.
The Dreadbots explain on their website that “The DHS Dreadbots team is not run by the coaches and mentors. Mentors offer encouragement, maintain safety and offer advice. The students are the ones that come up with the ideas for robot design and construction, strategies of the gameplay, and what part of the team they want to join.”
Everyone has a role. Everyone is included into a strong sense of camaraderie. Dreadbot Kathryn Seward told me, “Robotics has been a very rewarding experience for me. Before joining the team I wasn’t even able to lift my head in a crowd, much less speak. But I’ve developed leadership skills and at this point I’ve even become a team captain. It’s been a huge change for me.”
Team member Nathan Miller says, “What I really enjoy about this team is that there are so many cool things you can do. There are many different components to our team. If you like the mechanical aspects of it, you can work on that. If you like programming, you can do that. And then there are other things like marketing and business. I do the strategy work. There are many things to do and it’s awesome that we have so many mentors who are specialized in these given fields. They’re very dedicated and all of them are volunteers.”
One of the mentors, Lori Sprague, is my informant as to all things Dreadbot and is the reason I’m here having fun. She tells me, “As a mentor, I love seeing kids find out how their special qualities and skills fit into the team and I am always impressed with the patience and kindness these students show each other.” She then adds, “Speaking of mentors, many of us are engineers but the Dreadbots truly have a treasure (secret weapon?) in lead mentor Jennifer Bryson who is a social worker. Married to an engineer, she really understands how we think!”
Students on FIRST teams learn from and play with the “pros” – professional engineers who donate their time to work side-by-side with students to help design and build the sophisticated competition robots. This gives FIRST students an insider’s view of a career in science, engineering and technology not possible in a normal classroom setting. Plus, unlike other high school athletics, every student on a FIRST robotics team has a chance to turn “pro.”
Sophmore Spencer McMichael told me during the lunch break that “It’s a really good place for the students to get into the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) career. If it weren’t for this robotics program I probably wouldn’t be planning on going into the career I’m going into which is mechanical engineering.”
The camaraderie goes beyond the bonds of team spirit. Teams help other teams. There was an announcement over the PA asking if any team had an extra steel plate to give to a team in need. While I was there, Dexter was being beaten in the points category by Ann Arbor’s Rudolf Steiner High School. Dexter had loaned Rudolf Steiner one of their drivers, Vietnamese exchange student Quang Le.
I asked Quang as to why he would help an opposing team. “They were short of people because their driver had an exam at school,” he said. “In order to help them, my team asked me to drive for them. I think the whole thing about FIRST is helping and learning.”
The Dreadbots were recognized at the meet for their Gracious Professionalism by six other teams who wrote commendations for everything from Dreadbots being friendly and sharing information to programmers and mechanics helping to troubleshoot and repair other robots. Rudolf Steiner HS also expressed their gratitude for the lone of an excellent driver; especially since they went on to beat Dexter in the finals. You’ve heard of Dreadstrong? How about Dreadproud?
The selflessness goes beyond competing teams. Kathryn Seward told me a bit more about FIRST’s emphasis on giving. “I’m the lead on the service team that starts up community service programs,” she said. “Basically one of our foundations is to give back to our communities. Our community does so much for us with their support that we want to give back.”
I donned a pair of safety glasses and walked through “the pits” in another room. This is where teams set up a booth to work on and repair their robots if necessary. I caught up with three Dreadbots passing the time until the next match, one of whom was drive Andrew Merriman.
I asked him to tell me a bit about driving. “So in driving, the perspective is oddly different,” he said. “Most people watching could be thinking, ‘Why is he struggling to make that turn?’ The Switch and The Scale block your view or sometimes another robot. It can be really hard to see so we have a camera here on the robot that we use to help us with that.”
Jack Pawlicki told me a bit about one of his roles with the Dreadbots. “Safety captain is monitoring and making sure everyone knows what they’re doing – wearing safety glasses, close-toed shoes, keeping their hair tied up,” he explained. “Pretty much what I do is remind people of the safety measures.”
Driver Christian Vaughan also worked on Apollo’s programming. “I’m one of the co-leads of the programming team,” he told me. “I’ve helped lead a team of about ten students write the fifteen hundred lines of code that it takes to basically run the entire robot. We also write the code for the fifteen-second autonomous period for the robot where it goes through its moves without anyone using the controls.”
Every student is encouraged to participate in some facet of the team, many of which have nothing to do with science and technology, such as printing promotional T-shirts, sponsor relations and outreach. There’s a place for everyone.
The Dreadbots won the Industrial Design Award sponsored by General Motors which recognizes form and function in an efficiently designed machine that effectively addresses the specific game challenge. Apollo took the honors for an advanced climbing mechanism hook that enables the robot to climb while leaving room for an alliance partner to climb simultaneously.
The coveted award is no small feat. Guidelines include:
- The design is elegant and efficient (simple/executable) and practical. The entire machine reflects a system design approach, i.e., the overall machine design addresses the many functional systems that must operate together.
- Designing the machine contributes to the team’s success in FIRST – not just in performance on the field of competition.
- Reliability and maintainability are considered in design. For example, it is capable of withstanding the rigors of the contest and servicing is easy.
- The entire machine design, or the detailed process used to develop the design, is worthy of this recognition, and not just a single component.
This is the Dreadbot’s 8th season with a team of 49, the largest yet. Of the 7 prior seasons, the Dreadbots have advanced to the world competitions 4 times traveling as far away as St. Louis, MO to compete. And by “world competitions”, I mean teams from other countries actually come to compete. It’s astounding.
It was an exciting afternoon for an outsider, me in this case. The enthusiasm of the Dreadbots was infectious and I left Lincoln High School feeling better than when I came. I would have loved to talk to each team member because they all seemed to have a story about what brought them to the Dreadbots and their part in the team. They all seem excited to belong.
You can catch Apollo in action in the video below. Watch for #3656.
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