Wednesday, February 8, 2012

FIRST Robotics Boosts Academic Confidence

Keep it simple. That's the strategy this year for Middle College High School's robotics club going into the FIRST Robotics Challenge (FRC) this year. It's a lesson the group  learned a couple years ago when they built a robot too complicated for the tasks at hand.

"We learned the hard way and more isn't always better," said 17-year-old senior Megan Spears, who's got a few years in the robotics program under her belt. "This time it's all about narrowing down the functions, figuring out what it needs to do and just making it do that."

So what does the robot need to do in this year's "Rebound Rumble" contest? Balance, for one thing, and shoot basketballs through hoops.

"It seems like a little, but there's a lot of strategy that goes into it," Spears told us during a visit to the San Pablo campus last week. "There are so many other teams — it's really, really competitive."

This means every detail is all that more critical. Interesting to us because that epiphany stemmed from a throwback video game, and the suggestion to stop playing and get to work by their math teacher and robotics adviser, Eric Reed.

"I was playing Tetris before class one day, just killing time, when he told me to put the game down," Spears said. "Well later that night, he had the idea to make our robot L-shaped, like a Tetris block, because it may help it balance during one part of the challenge."

Spears said she credits Tetris for putting the idea in Reed's head.

"I told him later he should thank me," Spears joked.

The national robotics contest isn't just about the challenge on game day — at regionals or nationals. It's more about the journey, said Spears. She reluctantly joined her school's FIRST team a few years ago, bribed by the promise of extra credit. Over time, she was rewarded with skills she never expected to acquire — engineering know-how, design, mechanical problem solving.

"And a strong sense of how to work as a team," she added. "I've learned how to brainstorm ideas and solutions in new ways, and to think creatively or just to not be afraid to come up with out-of-the-box ideas."

Bishop-Wisecarver has had the privilege of watching that intellectual growth throughout the years since we first sponsored her team a few years ago. Just last year, one of our engineers, Brian Burke, stopped by her class to check out the progress on their build.

[ Read Burke's takeaway from that visit here ] Burke said he was nothing short of impressed by the team's work. The robot's sophistication surpassed his expectations, he noted, and demonstrated the ingenuity of the students. Last year, he wrote:
Truly professional engineering level software is provided and utilized for the FIRST robots. One student was working on full 3D models of the robot build using AutoCAD Inventor. Another student was working on the control and feedback system in LabVIEW. The introduction of these tools and their real world applications is invaluable for students to experience.
The same holds true for this year's group, which is comprised of several of the same students, who spend many weekday evenings and Saturday mornings poring over their sizable robotic creation or computer screens, designing, tinkering, figuring things out.

We write a lot about the FIRST teams we sponsor, especially since we've stepped up as "Diamond Suppliers" for FIRST in addition to our independent team sponsorships. Every robotics club we support has its own dynamic, its own personality or mix of personalities.

Middle College High stands out to us because of their around-the-clock dedication to the project, it's the type of commitment that means adults don't have to remind them to get their work done.

Spears feels like they're doing it on their own, mainly because they're curious, creative and competitive. "These students do a lot," Reed agreed. "This isn't your ordinary high school."

Middle College High has a special curriculum, designed for students with lots of potential but have poor grades. Counselors, teachers and parents identify those students, help them apply and get them enrolled in college courses alongside their regular schoolwork. By the time Middle College kids reach senior year, many of them already have their Associate's degree — Spears included.

Extracurricular clubs like robotics are part of what makes the school an intensive precursor to college. The hands-on experience is priceless.

"I'm sure it's prepared me in ways I can't even imagine yet," said Spears, who plans to major in astronomy or chemical engineering. "I'm really confident. I feel ready ... I definitely have a head start."