FIRST Teaches Technology, Teamwork

February 3, 2006
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GRANDVILLE — The Grandville High School RoboDawgs are ready for the ball game, but they won’t be breaking a sweat.

Instead, the team of 26 high school students will let a robot do the physical work while they are the masterminds handling the controls.

Since January, the students have been working to design, build and control a robot that will compete against other robots in the annual West Michigan Regional FIRST Robotics Competition March 30 through April 1 in Allendale. The RoboDawgs also include students from Byron Center High School.

The students have six-and-a-half weeks to design, build, test and tweak the robot so that it can fulfill the requirements set by this year’s program.

Coach Ronald Denning said FIRST, which stands for Forward Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is a way for high school students to learn more about technology as well as the team-building and communication skills needed in a business setting. The students meet after school to work on the project with mentors from area businesses.

“The program is great because it links businesses with the students,” Denning said.

The mentors who help the students take a “hands-off” approach, helping in any way they can but letting the students do the work, Denning said, adding that it is important that the students complete the project themselves — although it is not one of the rules of the competition.

“If they do all the work themselves, that is what will inspire them,” he said.

The students are divided into a marketing team, a computer-aided drafting team, a fabrication team, a programming team and an electrical team.

Before the planning and building can start, the marketing team makes presentations to businesses in hopes of finding sponsors, such as General Motivation, Wolverine Building General Contractors, CompuCraft and H.S. Die and Engineering.

“We have to raise all the money ourselves,” Denning said.

The contest, which will cost $15,000 this year, has cost up to $50,000 in the past, Including travel expenses.

This year the robots will play a game that involves getting balls into a slot or a hole to gain points while competing against an opponent alliance. Each robot is teamed with two other robots; those teams, or alliances, may change from game to game, giving students the opportunity to work with a variety of other teams and types of robots.

Each match is divided into four periods. The robots are programmed and automated during the first period. The second and third periods are offense versus defense, when only one alliance can score. The fourth period is a free-for-all in which both alliances can score.

The teamwork involved encourages “gracious professionalism,” said Denning. The contest encourages that attitude to teach students about working with others.

“Other teams do work together and help each other out,” he said.

Denning said if a team runs into a problem, such as trouble with the robot’s motor, the team will go to a loudspeaker and announce the problem. Other teams then step in to help.

“It’s amazing. Within minutes there are two or three teams there with a motor there to help you,” he said. “They really want to be fair and give everyone a fair shake and help everyone out.”

Teresa McDougall is the co-coach and a fourth-grade teacher at West Elementary. She  said there also is a program for the younger students, called Lego League.

“It’s very similar to the FIRST Robotics philosophy,” she said. “It’s getting those kids interested and excited about technology.”

The Lego League is for 9- through 14-year-olds. The students are given a topic to research, such as the ocean and how to protect it, and a game board on which their robot will perform tasks. The robot, made out of Legos, may release a dolphin or pull a shark away from a sinking ship. The robot is programmed by the students to move around the board and accomplish tasks on its own.

“It really touches acquiring different types of skills and interests,” she said. “It really fits the kids who are really not maybe the traditional learners.”

McDougall said the students learn about problem solving, and about the options they have in school.

“This is like an advanced shop class,” she said.

Both FIRST Robotics and the Lego League focus on working with others, a crucial career skill, McDougall said.

“In the business world,” she said, “you never know when you’re going to have to depend on those other people.”   

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