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Sandy Journal

Off-season learning prepares local high school robotics teams for spring competition

Feb 01, 2018 08:07AM ● By Julie Slama

Students intently look on during the final round of the capture the flag off-season competition in December 2017. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Local high school robotics teams are trying to puzzle out how their robots, which are trapped in a simulation arcade game, can escape. 

This year’s FIRST robotics competition, First Power Up, gives high school students six weeks to build a robot that can transport power cubes and climb, amongst other tasks, said Juan Diego Catholic High’s Jim Duane, who coaches the school’s team along with Eric Browning. 

“It’s a monumental challenge to be able to design, build and practice the task,” Duane said. “It’s giving them real-world experience. These high school students are paving the way in engineering and design.”

Of the 3,700 teams worldwide, about 50 will compete March 1–3 at the Maverick Center. Half of those teams will be from out of state, even from other countries, Duane said.

“Our stop build date is Feb. 20 so it allows teams to travel to the regional qualifier,” he said. “Utah is one of the first regional competitions in the world.”

However, for many of the local teams it’s not just a two-month season. Many students learn, design and test their skills year round.

Juan Diego was joined by Jordan, Brighton and Alta high schools in December for a ribbon-cutting ceremony where their robots cut sections of the ribbon for the new Alta View Clinic. Eighteen months earlier, the same teams used shovels for a symbolic groundbreaking.

“We used the base and drive train from our robot, but then had to learn to add a shovel for groundbreaking and add motors so we’d be able to have a lot of power. For the ribbon-cutting, we had to have the arm be able to use scissors, so the students did some programming,” Duane said.

Jordan High coach Cameo Lutz said her students helped with the STEM Action Center bus ribbon cutting including teaching Gov. Gary Herbert how to have the robot cut the ribbon with scissors. So for this ribbon cutting, they decided to slice the ribbon with a beet knife, symbolic of the school’s nickname, the Beetdiggers. They used a wheelchair chassis they had taken apart for the groundbreaking.

Alta High coach Ron Strohm said the schools were invited because Intermountain Health Care wanted robots to be part of the ribbon cutting, symbolizing all their new technology available.

Alta High recently acquired a robot from the Steve Jacobsen Foundation that was used as one of the animatronics from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland California. It joined the school’s robotic hand that was used in the movie “Short Circuit” in 1986.

“They had them in the back room,” Strohm said, adding that students are learning how robotics can lead them to careers tied in with other professions. “We are using them to view and educate how animation is evolving.”

Alta, as well as Jordan, Waterford, Hunter, Hillcrest, Jordan, West, AISU, Roots Charter and Judge Memorial schools, took part in the Academy of Math, Engineering and Science (AMES) off-season game of capture the flag.

“The team alliances were random at the beginning and teams could earn points by how many flags you bring to the other side,” Lutz said. 

Sara Whitbeck, who coaches at AMES alongside Doug Hendricks and Laurie Williamson, said that details of the competition were worked out between her 50-member team, which is in its eighth year, and the other teams.

“A couple years ago, teams from outside Utah dominated our regional qualifier,” she said. “So a bunch of Utah coaches got together and decided that we could make events to help us develop skills and leadership.”

From that, AMES students began organizing and hosting an annual mock competition. The first year, six teams learned to shoot paper rockets at a target in Robot Rocket Rumble. Last year, 12 teams played Robo Pong, where the robots had to shoot Ping-Pong balls into a trash can.

“Those years, it was more of an individual team event. This year, we wanted it to be more of an alliance game where the teams could refine their skills,” Whitbeck said about the 14 teams that competed in December. 

Hillcrest High Coach Clief Castleton said this year the competition was more like regular season, without the pressure.

“The students who came could increase their skills in programming, designing and building,” he said. “It was especially helpful for our newer and younger students to experience before the regular season.”

Lutz said it also gave them the experience of overcoming things that could go wrong before a competition — even though her students spent about two months’ preparing for the event.

“It gave students the chance to know how to make things work last minute,” she said. “Alta was able to help us out with a motor the night before the event. At first, I didn’t understand FIRST’s term, ‘cooperition’ — cooperation and competition between teams. It isn’t just us against other schools. We’re all in it to become better.”

Lutz said that Jordan, now in its second year, has been grateful for the support such as the mentoring from Hillcrest, parts and camaraderie from Alta and practice space shared by Waterford.

These events help to strengthen the relationship between teams, Waterford coach James Harris said.

“There’s a lot of cooperation between schools as we’re all wanting to get better,” he said. “Our first couple years, we struggled so it was helpful when other teams helped us. We know how hard it is to get a program started. Our only goal is to inspire students in general and to enjoy problem-solving techniques to solve some interesting problems. In the real world, it will require collaboration, as we won’t have all the answers. We want students to collaborate in a wider community; that’s how problems will be solved.”

Teams often mentor one another, such as helping with beginning robotics teams, such as Waterford’s 26-member teams did when helping Roots Academy’s and Navajo Mountain’s team. Or helping younger students learning through FIRST Lego League — such as AMES assisting the Autism Spectrum Clinic team and Hillcrest High helping a team in Wyoming. 

Others talk about the league with the community. Jordan adopted a class of special needs students at a West Jordan elementary, and Corner Canyon reached out to Draper Park Middle School as well as to a Bountiful elementary school. Others worked on educating the community, such as Alta hosting local Girl Scouts to learn about their robots. Hillcrest is hoping to receive a grant this year to start a robotics programs with school children, including one within the Midvale community. 

A few years back, when Comic Con was new to Salt Lake City, several teams showcased their robots at the event and even held a demonstration against R2-D2. This summer, Jordan’s students drove its robot around Sandy’s 4th of July parade and demonstrated it for Jordan School District’s STEM at the stadium event and at STEM Action Center’s STEMFest in Sandy.

Schools use their skills to help the community in other ways. The past few years, Hillcrest’s team worked on iTRAC, developing a prototype and testing software that tracks eye movement in hopes it would help Jordan Valley School students communicate through blinking. 

“It has been a long-term project that allowed our students to use their skills in a real-world application to help others,” Castleton said.

Others sharpen their building, fabrication, design, coding and programming skills through engineering labs and challenges within their schools or in their robotics classes.

“Our students are often self-motivated and plan their own activities, such as building catapults so they can learn force, torque, rotary motion and how to make something happen,” said Brighton’s Robert Rainey, who coaches with Janice Spencer Wise. “Our team designed and built a robotic-controlled boat, called BoatBot, for last year’s play, ‘Pocahontas.’ This year, they built a winged horse of ‘Xanadu.’ It’s amazing to see brand new students timidly pick up a tool at the beginning to seeing them become quite good and able to problem solve and build their design. Anything they can do to better understand how to make things work is good.” 

Corner Canyon Coach Jill Kennedy said that this year, the team’s mentor suggested her 40-member team get involved with the Rage in the Cage competition.

“It involves two small robots or Battle Bots, so our students are learning both those robots as well as the big one we use for the FIRST season,” she said. “It’s been great to have students actively learning electronics and programming so this year, with FIRST, they’ll have more experience.”

All coaches say it isn’t just robotics’ skills they learn. It extends to planning and organization, marketing, communication, graphic design, cosmetics for robots and fundraising for the team.

“We even go over how to brainstorm so they aren’t just locked into one person’s idea,” Brighton’s Rainey said. “We cross train from coding to design so everyone gains that knowledge.”

Like most teams, American International School of Utah first-year coach Aaron Burton said his 20 students, who comprise the Mechanical Dragon team, are reaching out to the community for support.

“Fundraising is also a high priority in the off season; we look for sponsorship from local companies — and are still looking if any company owners want a tax deductible way to help a local team,” he said.

The past couple years, AISU has hosted another community-wide event, RoboFest, which has taught students from fabrication to grant writing and leadership as well as brought in experts in the field. This year, the Leonardo will host the event.

Burton, like many coaches, sums up his many goals for his students: “To see that they can accomplish hard and awesome things; to see what happens when teamwork works; to get a glimpse of engineering —and see if they want to pursue that for a career; to have fun; to make new friends; to learn from their failures; (and) to get some of the glory and excitement (normally reserved for sports teams) to shine on them.”