I walked into the Gale Bullman Multi-Purpose building this past Saturday at 7:20 am to begin my volunteering stint at the FRC Robotics State Finals Competition, for the state of Missouri. Our son, who is a junior at Rolla High School, is a member of one of the two teams from the high school that had successfully made it to this level of competition. There was a buzz in the air, as bright-eyed, wide awake high schoolers, and a few junior highers, were gathering in a gym, placing their robots on team assigned tables, chatting with each other and looking over the competition. Those kids were a lot more awake than I was feeling;Saturdays are the one day I can sleep in, perhaps to 8:00, if I am lucky! After getting my name tag, an FRC t-shirt( all volunteers wore one), and my green lunch ticket with MS&T’s mascot Joe Minor stamped on it, I found my son and his team, wished them luck, and then found the gentleman who was in charge of queuing. With 3 hours to pass before I had to actually begin my queuing job, I pulled out my library book and got some reading done. As a busy mom of 7, 5 still in the home nest, to be able to just sit and read a book, uninterrupted, is a treasure!!
At 10:15, I was joined by two other ladies, and one engineering student from the university who had agreed to volunteer for the event. One of his professors, as it turned out, was instrumental in lining up volunteers from the Rolla area to work at the competition. After our training session was done, we had another hour and 15 minutes to wait before we would actually have teams to queue. We queuers each had one of 3 tables, with a Field number on it. I and the college student were at Field Table 2. In front of each table, about 20 yards away, was a “pit”. A pit, at a Robotics competition is where the robots will move around, trying to do a task in a 3 minute window of time. Whichever teams’ robots do the best at the task will earn points. Also, two robot teams would be going against two other teams for this part of the competiton. As a queuer, my job was to make sure that the 4 teams scheduled for specific matches at specific times were at my table. Two of the teams would be assigned to the Blue controllers side of the pit and two would be assigned to the red controllers side. For this year’s competition, racks had been made out of pvc pipes, and robots had to manuever around the pit and take off of holding racks plastic rings, in either red or blue colors, and then transfer the rings to a new center rack. Robots had to work as quickly as possible, and could block opponents robots in the quest to get the most rings onto the center rack.
Most of the teams had catchy names. Instead of calling themselves the Tigers, or Bulldogs, or Wolves, as most of their high schools’ mascots were probably named, Robotics teams aim for clever titles, associated with machines. My son’s team’s name is the Maniacal Mechanics. Another team I remembered from another competition called themselves Blood, Sweat, and Gears! Teams also like to jazz up their appearances by wearing matching t-shirts with their team name emblazoned on the front and community sponsors on the back. One team on Saturday decided to dress up, wearing gray dress shirts, black ties, and black dress slacks. They queued up at my table and I told them they got my vote for the best-dressed team, if such an award existed! Some parents came with posters and pom-poms to cheer on their favorite teams. Seeing the parents all excited and revved up to cheer got me to thinking, that if schools have booster clubs to support their sports teams, they really ought to have booster clubs to support Academic teams, like Robotics teams. The robots for these competions are made by the Legos Company, the same company that makes the Legos toys, and these robots aren’t cheap. Add to that the cost of traveling to the competitions, and some teams have to also pay for hotel accommodations if they have traveled in from far away, plus meals for the teams. Civic groups and businesses should be asked to support such Academic Clubs hosted by their area high schools, as the clubs boost learning for their student members, and reflect well on a community-education relationship. If a community isn’t caring about what happens with their local school district, then a part of that positive factor in having successful schools in a community can be neglected and lost.
Our son surprised us when he asked if he could join the Robotics Club at Rolla High School this past Fall. He is a bit quieter than his older siblings and younger siblings, so we were quick to say that he could join this club. Our son has not only made some new friends, but he has learned to work within a group, to increase his skills in fixing mechanical problems with machines, and to work out through trial and error the problems that come with building a robot and getting it to do what it must do to be successful at a competition. Not knowing much about the club at first, he did enjoy attending the twice a week meetings, he did enjoy his task of team mechanic, and he didn’t mind the usually 2 hours time slot that meetings took up.
In summing up, I marveled at the smarts of all the kids on these Robotics Teams that competed on Saturday. I was impressed by their camaderie when it came to time to meet their alliance red or blue team when they would queue up at my table. I was impressed with the adult sponsors of the teams who would stay nearby in case their teams needed help, or had questions. I was also impressed with the FRC organization who was in charge of the entire day. FRC stands for First Robotics Competition and it was begun by Mr. Dean Kamen in 1989 as a way to encourage and inspire young people to discover the excitement and rewards of science and technology. From setting up the three pits, the queueing tables, the volunteer room that served us breakfast and lunch, and even the background music, it was a very well-managed event and I was glad to have volunteered for it. In fact, I would be glad to help out next year, as I think another competition will be held at MS&T. A day spent around high schoolers who were enjoying themselves and the activity surrounding the competition was a day well spent, for me.