When LeBron James is not playing basketball, he’s watching it. When Bobby Fischer wasn’t competing in chess tournaments, he was practicing. In nearly every competition, to be truly great, players must train, study and prepare.
That’s why robotics is so unique.
There is no blueprint. There’s just one challenge every year, and a robot must be built from scratch to solve it.
For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics, is a competitive worldwide robotics community.
Teams can join any of three competitions each year: FIRST Lego League, FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) or the FIRST Robotics Competition.
Currently, the only FTC team in all Lewis County is run out of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teacher Marcy Scheuber’s classroom in Adna Elementary School.
FTC teams can hold up to 15 students or community members in grades seven through 12. And because they don’t have to be affiliated with a school, there are no WIAA divisions. That means Adna competes with teams from Olympia, Seattle, Issaquah and more. They might sound like the underdog compared to those schools and programs in terms of experience, but Adna is actually the top scoring team in their league.
The challenge comes out in early January.
Last year, it was stacking blocks. This season, robots must pick up plastic rings and shoot them into baskets. The robot does this autonomously for 30 seconds, after which there is a two-minute period where two students drive the robot to perform the task.
The Adna team is made up of three freshmen, an eighth-grader and a seventh-grader.
Seven years ago, when Adna’s oldest team members were in third grade, Superintendent Jim Forrest came to Scheuber and asked her to start a robotics program.
She laughed and said, “I don’t know anything about robotics.”
But according to Scheuber, Forrest has always been focused on making sure students are involved in projects that make them feel proud. Robotics fits that role well because the entire process is owned and operated by the students.
At first, Scheuber had students on simple spherical robots and “block” programming on their computers. Essentially, it was more like solving puzzles than actual hands-on robot building. Four years ago, the team joined the Lego League. As the students got older and Scheuber learned, they decided they were ready for FTC. Their rookie year was 2019.
The only manuals that come with the challenge are rules for what teams cannot do. For example, teams cannot aid the driver in shooting rings by attaching a laser pointer to the robot. But there is no rule against changing your robot between competitions.
Teams draw on the other robots for ideas on how to improve certain aspects of the process. High-scoring robots advance from inter-leagues to state, and winners of state go to “worlds.” By the end of the season, robots usually all look alike as teams employ best practices inspired by one another.
“We took it apart and put it back together over a dozen times,” said freshman and main builder Levi Slape said.
To design, team captain, lead programmer and designer Nate Scheuber, Marcy’s son, uses CAD, or computer-aided design. On this program, he can build any shape imaginable, and the details and dimensions can be altered as needed. This saves the team plenty of time and energy over “free building” without the CAD.
Most years, teams in a league would have in-person meets.
Currently, they compete from Scheuber’s classroom. FIRST uses an honor system for scoring, but the Adna team always posts videos of their matches to YouTube. This encourages integrity and allows for more community engagement.
“A foundational character of FIRST is ‘gracious professionalism’ and so, they feel like nobody would ever cheat,” Scheuber said. “We have to give ourselves penalties, which is really hard. But the kids are always the first ones to call it out.”
In this sense, although it is a competition, there is an inspiring cooperative aspect to FIRST: people across the world are building the best possible robot to solve a certain problem, and they couldn’t do it without one another.
Furthermore, students are learning a host of multidisciplinary skills by working with mentors from the community, building their robot and working on a team with a challenging goal.
“Kids should learn that stuff early … now we’re starting robotics in kindergarten,” said Scheuber. “My goal as a teacher is to get them super excited about STEM.”