TEWKSBURY — Some students at Tewksbury Memorial High School are looking forward to the spring season in anticipation of track meets, baseball tournaments, and lacrosse games. But the Tewksbury Titans are planning to compete in a different kind of sport: robotics.
The 17-member team gathered last week for the kickoff livestream of the annual FIRST Robotics Competition, a worldwide engineering and technology tournament. Broadcasting from Manchester, New Hampshire, the FIRST team, led by founder and entrepreneur Dean Kamen (inventor of the Segway), the live telecast gave students a look at the season’s challenge and reminded them of their responsibility to actively engage in teamwork and “gracious professionalism,” one of FIRST’s core tenets.
Kamen launched the program in 1989 as a way to get students excited about careers in math and science and give them a chance to practice real-world skills, working closely with MIT professor Woodie Flowers, who passed away in late 2019.
Since the initial competition in 1992, the program has grown to include 3,700 teams worldwide, hailing from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Turkey, China, and beyond. Teams are funded by a wide variety of sponsors; the US Department of Defense supports 1,000 teams alone, and other groups include iRobot, Raytheon, and Boeing.
Additionally, FIRST provides $80 million in scholarships to participating individuals.
Following the release of the new Star Wars movie, “The Rise of Skywalker,” Disney and Lucasfilm are sponsoring the 2020 season as part of their “Force for Change” initiative. The launch livestream included an introduction video from Star Wars actors Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, and Daisy Ridley, as well as special guest appearances from Luke Skywalker himself — actor Mark Hamill — and iconic droid R2D2, one of the most famous robots in pop culture.
TMHS students gathered in one of the high school’s large group instruction areas to view the launch on the big screens. They watched as Disney engineers explained the science behind the movement of the lovable, rotund droid BB-8, and were attentive to speeches made by the FIRST leadership team, including a touching memorial to the late Dr. Flowers, who had autographed the Titans’ robot during the 2019 season.
Kamen quoted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in explaining why science and technology skills are critical for young people to gain: “We cannot build the future for our children; we must build our children for the future.”
Finally, the challenge was revealed and all eyes were glued to the screen. In an animated, narrated video, it was explained that the 2020 game “Infinite Recharge” would require students to build robots that would be able to overcome obstacles and collect reusable energy cells (dodgeballs) in order to protect the fictional “FIRST City” by charging a sustainable power grid.
Robots will have to pick up and shoot balls, spin a colorful wheel in a specific way, and cling to a suspended bar. The challenge will include an autonomous portion (students will need to program their robots to perform specific functions) and a remote portion (students will be able to drive their robots).
FIRST president Larry Cohen stated that the challenge was inspired both by the Star Wars galaxy, and the real-world global community.
Next, the FIRST team revealed the 26’x52’ playing field, which is replicated for competitions across the globe. Teams were able to send in questions for the field designers and engineers to answer live. Finally, teams were given a code for unlocking the online game manual, a rule book that contains all the dimensions and guidelines teams need to know for building their robots.
The Titans immediately broke into small groups, each taking a portion of the 133-page book to dissect.
Each team receives the same “kit of parts,” a starter toolbox of useful pieces fit to the exact specifications of the real playing fields, such as a color strip that matches the color wheel in the competition. Additionally, teams may use “credits” to get access to online software provided by the program and its partners.
In the fall pre-season, the Titans do critical work to support themselves in the current “build” season by securing cash or equipment donations from Middlesex county companies, including Holt & Bugbee, Raytheon, Analog Devices, Grainger, and Lockheed Martin. The team also works on practicing skills they need during the build season, such as programming and electrical work.
Several returning senior Titans are planning to study electrical, biomedical, and computer engineering, and have credited the program with sparking their interest in the field.
Longtime member Zach Spiegel said that this year’s game is “a unique challenge, combining a lot of elements of previous games.”
He explained that after breaking down the rules, the team will go through the design process, build prototypes, test, retest, and finally, build their competing robot. The team, which has members in grades nine through 12, will have seven weeks to build their robot, and will have six weeks of competitions, making modifications in between.
The team attends at least two events per season, and typically participates in 12 two-minute “matches” against other teams from New England. Teams are randomly assigned to a red or blue “alliance” of two other teams, and will have to work together to complete the challenge and gain more points than the competing alliance.
The team is professionally mentored by Scott Morris, an iRobot engineer, and Josh Nichols, who works at a local lumber company. Parents with engineering backgrounds also volunteer, and TMHS physics and engineering teacher Michael Hancock is the team’s faculty mentor.
Hancock, in his third year, is excited for the season and says one of his main goals is to “get some of the younger members engaged and passionate to keep the program going strong.”
He invoked one of Kamen’s popular slogans: “[Robotics] is the only sport where every kid can go pro.”
Hancock explained that while high school football or baseball players may find difficulty in joining the NFL or MLB, every kid who participates in robotics can find a job in engineering, computer science, programming or technology — especially since those fields face a dearth of candidates.
Spiegel is optimistic about the Titans and the season ahead.
“We have a lot of excited people on the team, which means good results will happen,” he said, while his teammates pitched ideas for tackling the color wheel and autonomously picking up balls. “We do the best we can — that’s all that matters. We’ll be happy with what we put forth knowing we did our best.”
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