By JAIMIE SWARTZ, ’13
Often coined “the varsity sport for the mind,” the international FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Program immerses high school students in the world of science and engineering by challenging them to construct complex robots. From March 22 to March 24, the JP Stevens robotics team, also called The WarHawks, competed at the regional level of the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) with its newly-built robot.
The team’s building season began in January, when FIRST Robotics released the rules of a new game. Contrary to popular belief, the robots are made not to attack each other, but to play sports. This year’s game, called Ultimate Ascent, is a robotic variation of Ultimate Frisbee; robots shoot Frisbees into goals and can climb ten-foot tall pyramids for bonus points. In six intense weeks, The WarHawks’ mechanical, electrical, design, and programming sub-teams collaborated to build “Captain Hook,” a three-foot tall robot. The team’s marketing department also created a forty-page business plan which detailed the team’s goals, sources of funding, and annual $9000 budget.
Once the building season passed, The WarHawks traveled to Mount Olive High School in Flanders, New Jersey, for the regional competition. Parents and spectators, generating a crowd of over 1500 people, came to watch thirty-five teams compete. Every half hour, the JP Robotics team was randomly assigned two supporting teams and three opposing teams to play Ultimate Ascent. Team advisor Mr. Kearney said, “When I see our robot score a Frisbee, I think, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what we built it to do. Do it again.’” Trained referees kept score and ranked teams based on the number of matches each team won. Between matches, The WarHawks “pit crew” fixed up the robot in preparation for each subsequent round.
After seventy qualifying rounds, teams competed in the “playoffs” to determine the three regional winners. These winning teams would then compete in the championship tournament at Lehigh University in hopes of advancing to the national championship in St. Louis, Missouri.
The WarHawks knew that this competition would be difficult; one third of participating teams have built adult support and funding for over ten years, which often has translated into better robots. This time, JP Stevens ranked thirtieth out of thirty-five teams. However, junior Sam Mao remarked, “Seeing our robot compete and score consistently is so invigorating that ultimately, the rankings don’t matter.”
The friendly atmosphere, combined with the teams’ enthusiasm, elevated the competition’s excitement. Groups covered their faces and hair with paint to match their vibrant uniforms. The teams were so loud that some adults left the stadium for a brief respite from the action. The judges, all professional engineers, offered advice on business plans that will be invaluable in the future. And veteran teams showed “gracious professionalism” by proactively helping other teams, highlighting the cooperative learning goals of the competition. With this new experience and knowledge, the JP WarHawks are ready to tackle the challenges of robot competitions to come.