700 robots to invade Houston this weekend

By Bill McCaughey
For The Fort Bend Star

(Photo by Bill McCaughey)
Pictured from the left are Chris Culbert, chief technology officer for Johnson Space Center; Lucia Sevcik, Houston regional director for FIRST; and Fiona Hanlon, volunteer resource coordinator for FIRST.

The FIRST Championship is coming to Houston April 19-22, bringing 700 robot teams from more than 30 countries, including a team from Stafford.

The event will take up over 1.8 million square feet of event space in the George R. Brown Convention Center and Minute Maid Park, along with events in Discovery Green. The 25,000-plus attendees will make this event one of the top five conventions in Houston in 2017.

Lucia Sevcik is the Houston director for FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology).

“This is the first year the world championship is being held in Houston, and it will be here for the next four years. The championship is free and open to the public, and the matches are very entertaining,” Sevcik said. “There will be six playing fields in the George R. Brown Convention Center with the finals to be held in Minute Maid Park. It’s a lot of work, but it’s all about the kids.”

“We expect 400 robot teams in the Robotics competition, which is for grades 9-12, along with 128 teams in the Tech Challenge, which is for grades 7-12, 108 teams in the LEGO League, grades 4-8, and 60 teams in the LEGO League Junior division, which is for grades k-4,” said Fiona Hanlon, volunteer resource coordinator for FIRST. “Each year FIRST students receive over $50 million in scholarships. Last year, over 13 percent of the applicants to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were FIRST alumni.”

(Photo by Bill McCaughey)
Robonauts can launch up to 15 balls per second.

Stafford High School, in just its second year of competition, will be competing in the robotics competition. They qualified by winning the Alamo Regional two weeks ago.

“We are really excited about qualifying for the championship,” Stafford coach Frank Hoang said. “This is only our second year and we beat some really good teams to get here.”

Other area teams include CRyptonite from Cinco Ranch High School, Iron Plaid from Duchesne Academy, Cy-Borgs from Cypress Ranch High School, VorTX from Klein High School, Spectrum from St. Agnes Academy and Strake Jesuit, Jersey Voltage from Jersey Village High School, and Pearadox from Pearland ISD.

Two area teams who previously won world championships will also be competing. The Robonauts from Clear Creek ISD won the world championship in 2015, and Texas Torque from Conroe ISD won it all in 2013.

Lucien Junkin, the lead mentor for the Robonauts, wanted to be a football coach after he graduated with an engineering degree.

“My high school coach told me to give engineering five years and if it didn’t work out, then go into coaching,” Junkin said.

Engineering apparently worked out as Junkin is now the Johnson Space Center’s Chief Engineer for Human Rovers – Moon and Mars, and he is probably the hardest working man in the FIRST world. He may not be on a football field, but Junkin is a coach as he constantly encourages his students to give their best.

“It’s all about our players,” Junkin said. “I want to give them every opportunity to succeed.”

“We limit our Robonauts team to 60 students from the six high schools in our district,” Clear Creek ISD Robotics Chief Luis Medina said. “Overall we have over 1,000 students from elementary school to high school involved in robotics programs. Almost 100 percent of our Robonaut team members go on to college, with most majoring in mechanical or aerospace engineering. Many of them come back to work at NASA after they graduate.”

“Our kids have really worked hard this year. Our driver got really good at avoiding defense,” Texas Torque Lead Mentor Scott Rippetoe said. “I have been doing this for 10 years and this is the best group of kids I have had.”

Rippetoe, a retired physics teacher with an aerospace engineering degree, oversees 66 robotics teams in the Conroe ISD.

Like other student activities, robotics can consume the whole family. Ross and Kris Pettinger continue to spend their weekends during build season at the Robonauts practice facility, even though their kids have graduated. Ross is a lead mentor for software, and Kris has developed a scouting application for the Robonauts.

In their real jobs, Ross develops software for the Johnson Space Center, and Kris develops training simulations for the space vehicle Boeing is developing. Their son Adam, now a senior at the University of Texas – Austin majoring in mechanical engineering, was a driver for the Robonauts for two years, and when he graduated, their daughter Danielle, now a sophomore at UT majoring in mechanical engineering, took over as driver. Danielle also has founded a technology start-up company.

“Danielle owns bragging rights in the family as she was the driver of the world championship team in 2015,” Ross Pettinger said. “I attribute their interest in engineering and tech start-ups to their experience in the FIRST program.”

Danielle may not hold the bragging rights for long as Ross was awarded the Woodie Flowers Award at the Lone Star Regional last month. The Woodie Flowers Award celebrates effective communication in the art and science of engineering and design, and it recognizes mentors who lead, inspire and empower using excellent communication skills.

Sponsors of FIRST teams include the Johnson Space Center, Bechtel Corporation, Baker Hughes, Boeing, Microsoft, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Apple Computer and many other high technology companies.

“NASA has a huge need for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) people. So, we sponsor FIRST teams and events and then at the other end of the pipeline, we get graduates we can hire,” Chris Culbert, chief technology officer for the Johnson Space Center, said. “One of the things that is not obvious is that our engineers mentor teams. As they mentor the students, our engineers get better.

They get hands-on experience building a new robot every year. In the real world, the robot projects are much bigger but you may work on the same robot for five years. So, the FIRST program benefits NASA engineers long after they left their high school team.”

Currently no Fort Bend ISD schools participate in the FIRST program. A spokesperson for Fort Bend ISD said their schools offer many programs in the STEM area.

Russell C. Jones, former Sugar Land city council member, would like to see Sugar Land and Fort Bend County promote STEM programs like FIRST.

“I would like to see Sugar Land get involved in the FIRST Robotics program. The program has created much interest in science and engineering for high school students, many of whom will go off to college and earn degrees in these areas, and some of these graduates may want to return to Sugar Land,” Jones said. “We have many engineering and technology companies based here, but to retain them and recruit more, we need an ongoing supply of human resources with engineering and technology degrees. We just need to provide programs like FIRST Robotics with local resources.”

The FIRST Championships start Thursday morning and run through Saturday evening. The opening ceremony will be Thursday evening at Discovery Green, and the closing ceremony will be Saturday evening at Minute Maid Park.

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