Robotics Teams Do Battle

April 11, 2005
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ALLENDALE — Imagine a project that would bring Haworth, Magna-Donnelly and Delphi in direct competition with a partnership between Siemens Logistics and DaimlerChrysler.

For a separate piece of that same project, imagine an alliance of Delphi, ITT, Rolls Royce, DaimlerChrysler and General Motors pitted against Metal Flow Corp., another General Motors division and NASA.

Those companies represented the semifinal round of the FIRST Robotics Competition West Michigan Regional at Grand Valley State University last week.

Haworth and Magna-Donnelly served as mentors, coaches and sponsors for the Holland Dutch team from Holland High School, whose robot advanced into the semifinal on a team with robots from Pontiac and Madison Heights.

Holland-based Metal Flow Corp. guided Holland Christian’s Team ROBOTICS robot, The Phent, to the championship match alongside robots from Ypsilanti and Appleton, Wis.

For 14 years, the FIRST Robotics Competition has served as a vehicle to introduce high school students to the engineering world.

“The idea behind FIRST was to use a sports model to get kids interested in math, science and business,” said Natalie Lowell of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, the event coordinator. “Instead of looking up to sports heroes and choosing role models by how well they can shoot or kick a ball, it encourages them to look up to people with skills in science, math, communications and marketing. We can elevate the skills that fill human needs by putting them up against each other.”

The robotics competition is actually a full-year project. FIRST team members essentially create a fully functional business. With help from mentors, the teams find funding, market themselves and develop internal and external communications.

During the competition phase, teams design and build a robot to perform a specific task. This year, the competition involved a three-on-three cross between a ring toss and tic-tac-toe. Points were scored by dropping a red or blue tetrahedron onto a triangle-shaped goal.

When the contest details are released each January, the teams have six weeks to design and build the robot. At the end of that time, the robot is crated up and put into storage, not to be seen again until the regional.

“Build season is insane,” said Creston High School junior Rene Bloomfield. “Four hours a night, eight hours on weekends for six weeks.”

Bloomfield, operator of team R2D Cubes’ robot, D Cubed, was happy to see the robot work the way it was designed to.

In the FIRST competition, students quickly learn there is more involved to the game than making the robot do what it’s supposed to. Teams designate scouts to seek out potential alliance partners and identify the strengths or weaknesses of potential competition. Within the alliances, teams develop strategy around their robots’ capabilities. Some are scorers, others play defense.

Often the most important collaborations arise when a robot goes down. Machining tools are swapped back and forth as students and mentors from varying backgrounds and fields work together to make the necessary repairs.

“(FIRST) really teaches you the importance of teamwork,” Bloomfield said, “both on your team and with people you’ve not met before.”

“You really come in there knowing that you can’t get it done without the other teams,” added driver Jon Boer, a Holland Christian High School junior. “You have to roll with the punches. You have to be flexible.”

Forty-two teams squared off at GVSU in the three-day competition, which was the final FIRST regional before the national championship in Atlanta on April 21-23. The regional brought over 3,000 people to West Michigan, from as far away as Maryland and Wisconsin. Mayor George Heartwell delivered the opening address.

“This program has become a vehicle for community development,” said Paul Plotkowski, dean of the Padnos College of Engineering. “The kinds of companies we’re looking to attract are looking for employees like these.”

Valor Industries President and CEO Juanita Briggs agreed.

“We hire engineers and employ engineers. This is a good way to keep on top of what’s happening with the kids,” said Briggs, who has served as a judge for three years. “I’ve been trying to get my two teen-age daughters involved.”

In addition to teamwork and business skills, students gain firsthand experience in CAD, computer programming and mechanical construction.

“I get floored by the professionalism of these kids,” said Jeff Ray, director and associate professor of the GVSU School of Engineering. “The business skills and the technical skills they are learning are the same skills employers of college graduates are looking for.”

Ray also pointed out how effective FIRST has been at getting students excited about the engineering field. The teams all wore uniforms and had slogans and mottos. Most had mascots, like the Appleton student dressed in an apple costume. The team from Madison arrived in a Hummer painted with its colors and logo.    

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