By Bill McCaughey
For The Fort Bend Star
For the past two months, a handful of Stafford High School students, working out of the Stafford Engineering Academy Laboratory (SEAL Lab) on the Stafford campus, has been quietly assembling a robot that they hope will conquer the world.
The FIRST Robotics World Championship that is.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, the creator of the Segway mobile device. Kamen’s goal was to get kids excited about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). FIRST offers four programs: FIRST Robotics competition for high school kids, FIRST Tech Challenge for grades 7-12, FIRST Lego League for grades 4-8, and FIRST Lego League Junior for grades K-4.
This year, over 460,000 students in 85 countries will participate in 2,600 FIRST programs. The Stafford Spartans Robot Team is in its second year of competing in the FIRST Robotics competition. Stafford implemented the FIRST programs in 2014 and hired Frank Hoang, a business administrator at Memorial Hermann and former engineering teacher at Stafford, to coordinate the FIRST programs at Stafford.
“We have over 100 students involved in the FIRST programs district-wide, and we have 19 high school students in the FIRST Robotics program this year,” Hoang said. “Each year we have about two to three robotics team members go on to study engineering in college.”
“The robotics program has transformed the way Stafford MSD approaches technology in the classroom. There’s a great deal of research showing that involvement in robotics programs leads to successful careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Here at SMSD, we like to call it “STEM to Earn. By all forecasts, those are the jobs of the future, and we want to prepare our students for college or career, without remediation,” Stafford MSD Superintendent Dr. Robert Bostic said. “When we started the robotics program at SMSD, our goals were two-fold – ensuring that students in grades pre-K through 12 have the opportunity to engage in the program, and we also wanted to make sure our teachers received the best training available, and they did receive that excellent level of training from Carnegie Mellon University’s outstanding robotics institute.”
The FIRST robotics competition changes every year but typically requires a team’s robot to perform several intricate activities such as shooting a ball or Frisbee, picking up an item and placing it somewhere, and then climbing a structure with the robot being at least two to three feet off the ground. All of that in a robot that weighs less than 120 pounds, and this year, can be no taller than three feet.
The FIRST robotics competition pits two teams, or alliances, of three robots each in a timed match. For the first 15 seconds of the 2-minute 30-second match, a robot must operate on its own, utilizing student developed software. After that, two student drivers, one to drive the robot, the other to operate the shooting and grabbing operations, control the robot. Think software development, mathematical computations and all sorts of engineering packed into a 120-pound robot.
An important part of the FIRST philosophy is cooperative competition, so each competition requires three teams to work together in an alliance. The alliances are formed by the team captains. Qualifying rounds determine seeding, and then the top seeds invite two other teams to join their alliance. The elite teams have team members scouting the opposition during the qualifying rounds and using analytics to decide which other two teams would create the most formidable alliance.
The FIRST robotics season began the first weekend in January when the details of this year’s competition were announced. After that announcement, the teams had six weeks to build their robots, what the FIRST veterans call the build season. On Feb. 21, the teams were required to place their robot in a sealed box, not to be opened until the competitions began during the first weekend in March. The largest competition in the Houston area is the Lone Star Central Regional, to be held March 15-18 at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory School. Teams that qualify will move on to the FIRST World Championship, which will be held in Houston in April for the next three years.
Long hours are common during the build season. The Stafford students spent most weeknights and Saturdays building their robot in order to meet the deadline. Most teams have mentors with engineering backgrounds, and Thinh Nguyen is the primary mentor for the Spartans. Nguyen, a graduate student in bio-medical engineering at the University of Houston, assists the students with the robot design, software development and engineering.
“I helped the students to develop the software that controls the robot during its 15 second autonomous period. It is up to the students to do the work and I helped educate them in the software,” Nguyen said. “I used to help them with the electronics but they have become so proficient with electronics they don’t need me for that.”
The students work in small groups on various projects.
“There were three to four students who were responsible for the software development,” Nguyen said. “When creating software, its more efficient to have a good small group than everyone being involved.”
“We have spent a lot of time working on our robot,” sophomore James Phan said. “Last year I was involved in building the robot, and I was pit crew leader and mechanic during the competition. I like that it furthers my interest in science and engineering. I would like to major in engineering when I go to college.”
During its autonomous period, the students program the robot to move in a specific direction at a specific speed and when to stop and shoot. After that, the two-person driver team takes over.
On a Saturday morning near the end of build season, the Spartans were working to develop their drivers’ abilities. In the next week, they would select their two-person driver team, so this week was devoted to giving the three driver teams experience behind the wheel.
“We have set up a playing field in our lab to simulate the competition,” said Leonel Avellaneda, team captain and driver candidate. “During the autonomous period, we will shoot the balls that are stored on-board. For the next two minutes, we will deliver a gear to the loading dock and return every 15 seconds to score as many points as possible. With about 15 seconds to go, we will drive to the rope station, and position our robot to grab the rope and hoist itself up to the three-foot level.”
“The hardest part of driving is placement. You must know when to stop and when to go. Our programmers have made the controllers really easy to operate so it is somewhat easy to pick up,” Mark Excudero said.
Excudero, a junior interested in studying aviation and computers in college, has a drone at home and believes driving the robot is like flying a drone.
“Drones are really cool,” Excudero said. “But I have crashed it several times.”
Lauren Schomburg, a freshman, was in the middle school FIRST program.
“I wanted to continue in the robotics program and this is much more advanced than what we did last year. It is really fun and it helps me with teamwork and improving my engineering skills,” Schomburg said. “The robot is really coming together. We have definitely come a long way since we first started and I think it’s turning out really well.”