More than fun and games

March 25, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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They don’t have team captains in the FIRST Robotics Competition for high school students. That individual is referred to as the team president — and there’s a reason for that.

“FIRST is an organization that is not only about playing the game, but also building your own business model,” said Caleb Pratt, a senior at Lowell High School and president of its Red Arrows Robotics team, which may — or may not — be headed to the state finals at Eastern Michigan University in April. When this went to press, it was too close to tell.

“We are supposed to try to get a running business model, and every year we’ve been getting closer and closer to that,” said Pratt, who has been on the Lowell team for three years and will soon be headed to the University of Michigan to study computer engineering.

For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology is a nationwide nonprofit organization founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, an inventor (of the Segway, among other things) and entrepreneur from New Hampshire, with the goal of getting young people interested in science, technology and engineering. It offers several types of competitions for kids, from kindergarten through high school.

This year the U.S. FIRST Robotics Competition involves 2,343 teams from around the country, comprising almost 60,000 high school students, with the national championship at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis in late April. The challenge laid down by FIRST in early January was to design and build a robot that can pick up a basketball and shoot it at the hoop — with the goal of scoring, of course.

Teams are provided with a common kit of parts but can acquire their own parts independently, with a limit on what they can spend — and they have to raise the money from local businesses. All documentation must be provided as part of the competition.

“Some of the stuff we completely design and assemble by ourselves,” said Pratt. The tower assembly was very complicated so the team gave its design and specifications to White’s Bridge Tooling in Lowell, which is a major sponsor of the Red Arrows. This year the company donated several thousand dollars’ worth of machine time and CAD work toward the Red Arrows effort.

Pratt said White’s Bridge “CAD guy takes our ideas and turns them into an actual working CAD model, and then they were kind enough to order the parts and machine them,” said Pratt.

The electronics and controls were made by the Red Arrows team, which has about 15 members, so there was “no need to outsource that,” said Pratt. “Electronics is usually pretty easy,” he added.

Almost all of the controller’s computer coding was done by the team, too.

Ken Platteschorre, an engineering designer in the seating group at Haworth in Holland, is a board member of the FIRST organization in Michigan and a lead mentor for the Holland FIRST Robotics Team 74 at Holland High School. The team is sponsored by Haworth, Magna Interiors/Exteriors, Russells Technical Products, Disher Design, Tiara Yachts and Johnson Controls. Some of these companies help sponsor other teams, too.

Platteschorre said there are almost 70 FIRST Robotics teams in West Michigan and about 190 statewide, with an average of about 20 students per team.

The kids and the adult volunteers spend about 25 hours or more per week, after school and on Saturdays, designing, building and testing their robots over a period of six weeks, according to Platteschorre.

He said a lot of the teams “are structured like mini-companies, actually, because you’ll have your marketing or fundraising team, you have an engineering team, a manufacturing team,” and so on.

“A lot of teams will have their own board of directors,” he added.

Platteschorre said at least 95 percent of the FIRST Robotics team members will go into an engineering field, which they may not have done before getting involved with the program.

And what is the prize for the winning teams? “Bragging rights,” said Platteschorre, and a trophy.

But that’s really not all. FIRST competitions will lead to more than $14 million in university scholarships across the country this year for the budding scientists and engineers.

Meanwhile, the Red Arrows expect to go to the state finals. They competed in the regionals at Traverse City in early March and took first place, plus “the coveted Excellence in Engineering award,” according to Odland.

Although they didn’t do quite as well at the advanced competition at GVSU after that, the Red Arrows did take the Motorola Quality Award, according to Pratt. That means more points added to their total score — and a better chance to land in the state finals.

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