Unlike sports, the rules of the game change every season for high school robotics teams. The squad at Penfield High School, FIRST Team 1511, or Rolling Thunder, are currently preparing for the annual competition.
This districtwide contest is held at RIT in March, and brings together teams from across the U.S. and other countries.
Each year, teams must design and build a robot that will complete a task to earn points in a timed setting. Previous tasks have included kicking a ball into a goal, hanging inflated objects on a grid, and knocking down trackballs.
This season, teams must create a robot designed to launch basketballs into hoops. While this may sound simple, teams must find new ways to make their robot move a ball from Point A to Point B.
“The game has been simplified, but the strategies are all very different,” said Penfield senior Matthieu Dora. “It’s enjoyable to watch a game where strategies are ingenious.”
Teams must work quickly since each match lasts just two minutes. But since they are placed in “alliances” with each other, the spirit of competition is kept alive in keeping with good sportsmanship.
“In the pits, we help them and they help us,” said Dora, of competing teams. “It’s great fun because it’s stressful, but in a good way.”
The Rolling Thunder were given the Chairman’s Award in their division last season for best representing the core values of the national organization, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).
But robotics isn’t just about competing for prizes.
The team has been at PHS since 2004, and today it has about 40 students who mentor younger robotics teams and take part in a number of charitable outreaches throughout the school year. They spend five days a week, including evenings and weekends, and get no grades or school credit for being on the team.
So what makes them tick? For one thing, it’s a chance to learn more about the fields that excite them. A group of real engineers volunteer their time as coaches. Students say that having these types of mentors is one of the most useful aspects of joining.
“You have a great support network,” said sophomore Ciana Robertson. “They don’t expect you to come with the skills, they expect you to come here to learn the skills.”
In this way, their mentors become helpful guides to the field of technology, but also positive role models, explains team leader Larry Lewis, a test engineer at Harris Corp.
“Kids are looking up to everyday heroes,” he said. “It brings an awareness that these people are out there and that you can be a professional engineer, too.”
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