In its rookie season in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), Dulles High School qualified for the FIRST World Championships held last weekend at the George R. Brown Convention Center and Minute Maid Park.
The Vikings competed with 404 FRC teams from all over the world, with 35,000 fans attending the event. Dulles placed 52nd in its pool of 66 teams.
“It was a big win for us to just qualify for the world championships,” Dulles coach Brian Sonnier said. “Having been here, now we want to come back every year.”
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was created 30 years ago by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway scooter. It now has more than 615,000 students in more than 100 countries involved in four levels of robotics education and competition, with the FRC for high school students being the highest level.
In 2018, Texas’ University Interscholastic League (UIL) added FIRST robotics to its list of approved extracurricular activities. The inaugural FIRST state robotics championship was held April 4-6 in Austin.
Dulles won six of its 12 matches but still finished 52nd out of 64 teams.
“I am very proud of the Dulles Robotics team and their coach,” Dulles principal Jennifer Nichols said. “These kids have spent countless hours building, modifying and testing their robot. They recently ‘walked’ their robot around the cafeteria and school, and it was amazing to see their hard work come to life.”
Dulles is the only Fort Bend ISD high school to have a FIRST club and has 44 active members. Four years ago, Dulles hired Sonnier to teach engineering classes and to develop a school robotics club.
Sonnier had been involved in several robotics organizations and knew he wanted to be in the FIRST organization.
“The FIRST competition gives the students real-life work skills and has them work in a professional environment,” Sonnier said. “Also, each year FIRST awards over $80 million in scholarships.”
Beyond college scholarships, the FIRST experience can pave the way for internships. Many of the NASA-sponsored clubs hire college students with FIRST experience as summer interns. According to Forbes magazine, BAE Systems, a global technology company, claims 33 percent of its new employees each year are FIRST alumni.
For the first three years, Sonnier focused on developing two lower-level FIRST teams, which laid the groundwork for this year’s FRC team.
Dulles has supported the club by providing two shops – a wet shop for welding and construction and a dry shop for engineering and software.
Other sponsors include NASA, the Kids Robotic Academy and the Texas Workforce Commission. The total cost for Dulles’ three teams this year was $26,000. However, much of that was the acquisition of tools and computers, so next year’s budget is expected be around $9,000.
The FIRST competition is different each year, but it is always played between two alliances. An alliance is three teams working together to score the most points. FIRST uses this approach to teach teamwork and cooperation.
This year’s FRC game was called Deep Space. It required the robots to perform several tasks that may be necessary to survive on a distant planet. Points were scored for picking up flat panels and docking them on a space ship, picking up large balls and placing them in a cargo bay and then having the robot return to its habitat and lift itself up to a second level that was about six inches above the first level.
Ryan Jochims is Dulles’ technician and welder.
“There is a six-week build season starting the first weekend in January. You have six weeks to build your robot, and then you can only make repairs to it,” Jochims said. “For rookie teams, they sent us some parts to get us started, but after that you are on your own to design your robot to score the most points.”
Although six weeks sounds like a long time, that last week can be rather frantic.
“Some of our parts were late in arriving, so we had to change the design of our robot,” Jochims said. “We didn’t have time to build a lifting mechanism, so we concentrated on being a defensive robot. We just get in the way of the competition so they can’t score points.”
Mark Giordano, vice president of development for FIRST, sees big opportunities for growth of the program as it seeks to introduce more kids to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities.
“About 95 percent of the kids in the world are not a part of FIRST. We are working to give these kids an opportunity to get involved in FIRST and hopefully change their lives,” Giordano said. “The toughest part to starting a program is to find mentors to assist the students and training teachers who may not be comfortable with new technology. We also are focused on introducing FIRST to more girls and minorities. We want every kid to have an opportunity with FIRST.”
The FIRST championships have grown so large they have two locations each year. Last week Houston hosted the event for the southern and western parts of the United States and many other countries. This week, the second event is being held in Detroit.
This is the third year Houston has been a host, and there is one more year to go on its initial contract. Both FIRST and the city would like to see the championships stay for many years.
“We really like Houston,” Giordano said. “The facilities are great and can easily handle 35,000 people. Plus, the weather is great.”