Boosting Robotics in Mass and Beyond
Shrewsbury Robotics among the leaders in ramping up the ‘sport’
Shrewsbury, MA – At a FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) event at Shrewsbury High School in Massachusetts, the National Anthem was performed, an announcer introduced the teams, and cheers erupted as players took to the field.
The main difference between this type of robotics event and a typical sports event is that, as you look down at the gym floor, the human players are off to the sides while those darting across the floor are metal, often decorated, and all on a mission. Instead of hoops, in this case, the large robots were cruising across the floor, placing balls in rockets and cargo holds, and securing hatch panels.
Each year, the game theme changes. For the 2018-2019 season, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) took on a space theme for FIRST LEGO League (FLL), FLL Jr., FIRST Tech Competition (FTC) and FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). The specific theme for FRC was ‘Destination: Deep Space.’ The matches are intense at each level as robots rush to complete tasks in an allotted time.
Since FIRST began in 1989, founder and inventor Dean Kamen has worked to capture the atmosphere of large and exciting sporting events, referring to the robotics competitions as a “varsity sport for the mind.” The FIRST Championships (‘Worlds’) held in Detroit and Houston attract more than 30,000 spectators and attendees per event, and FIRST counts on a vast worldwide network of organizations like Shrewsbury Robotics to host regional events like the Central Mass District Event, which was held in the Shrewsbury High School gymnasium.
Lorelie Randa was among the many parents cheering on the sidelines at the Shrewsbury event. She was there to watch her son’s team, the Brain Busters (Team 7438,), a rookie, community-based FRC team out of Sherborn, MA. Randa says it’s uplifting to see robotics taking the spotlight.
“All of the tournaments take place in these huge field houses of large high schools or colleges,” says Randa. “Lining the walls and suspended from the ceilings of these arenas are banners that tout the athletic prowess of teams that have competed in the same field houses,” she adds. “For many of the kids that participate in these FRC competitions, this is their sport! This is their chance to earn the silver medal or the trophy.”
Behind the scenes, Shrewsbury Robotics FRC Team 467 – a high school team and the largest FRC team in New England – planned the event with FIRST organizers. Each December, the team hosts one of the largest FLL qualifying events in Massachusetts (Mindstorm Mayhem) at Oak Middle School, and was thrilled to host the larger robots at the high school.
“We had wanted to host an FRC event for many years,” says Robotics Program Director Carol McInally. “This is our 20th anniversary so we mentioned it to the school committee and they agreed; FIRST took one look at the space and said this is fantastic.”
After months of preps, the spring 2019 event was a success. “We want to recognize the dedication of Team 467 – the Shrewsbury Colonials!,” announced FIRST Master of Ceremonies ‘Angry Eric,’ who outlined how smoothly and on-time the event was running as the crowd cheered.
More than Robots
While the competition is fierce on the field and the goal is to engage young people with the excitement, there is a running theme at all FIRST events: “It’s not about the robots!” said Kamen at his 2019 appearance at the New England District Championship at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI).
With this sentiment, Kamen frequently emphasizes that the ultimate goal is not building a cool and competitive robot. It’s about the learning and engaging young people so that they are inspired to become engineers or embrace other STEM careers.
Academics, mentoring and STEM career motivation are major elements of all FIRST events and the FIRST awards system. And it’s not just the teams that FIRST aims to motivate. As part of the event, Shrewsbury Robotics organized an FLL Jr. Expo that ran during the event – complete with awards, set up an FLL table and created demo areas for larger robots to inspire young attendees. The FRC team Northern Force (Team 172) from Maine brought a lunar backdrop and space suit costumes for photos that would inspire and engage attendees.
What’s clear to those who follow FIRST teams is that it’s often a year-round endeavor. Many FLL teams begin meeting in the spring and ramp up during the summer, receiving their mission at the end of August for a season that peaks during the winter months. FTC teams also work on their robots through the fall. FRC teams, which only have six weeks to create their robots, hold training and outreach events at different times throughout the year, along with fundraising drives to make the short but extreme January through April build and competition season possible.
“I spend more time here than I spend at home,” laughs Paula Feldmar, a food scientist and a Shrewsbury Robotics mentor who has been part of the team for 19 years. “My parents were mentors and I started coming when I was seven!” she recalls. “I kind of grew up here.”
Feldmar helps the FRC team prepare for the coveted Chairman’s Award, which is the premiere award at each event, and is based on a team’s outreach efforts. She has noticed the interest level in joining the team has skyrocketed. “This team has gotten huge,” she exclaims. “There were maybe 40 of us. Now there are 87 kids and 120 interested. It blows my mind how big it’s gotten. We’re still us; we’re a bunch of nerds that build a robot.”
Humans and Robots Connect
“You have to angle it sometimes,” said 10-year-old Shriya of Shrewsbury, who was among the girls trying out a robot during a Shrewsbury Robotics open house event. “They were able to learn about different parts, what goes into a robot build, how it functions and how to use it,” said Shriya’s mother Varnitha.
“These are the tanks, this is the compressor, and this is how they all work as a unit,” said 17-year-old Shrewsbury High School junior Shivali Mani, who was showing the attendees different parts of a robot. “I showed them how the pneumatics can move the piston in and out and how strong it is when extended,” added 16-year-old sophomore Tyler Murphy.
Sharing a love of STEM topics is a primary goal of FIRST teams, particularly the high school level teams. In addition to taking part in a variety of public outreach events, Shrewsbury Robotics mentors 17 FLL teams and has begun work to start FRC teams in China and India.
Shrewsbury Robotic’s FRC team has experienced more than a 30% increase in the number of girls on the team since last season. The group works to help local Girl Scouts earn badges and, for the past two years, has hosted the G.I.R.L.S. (Girls Innovating and Recognizing Leadership in STEM) Workshop, an event designed to emphasize women’s roles in engineering to middle and high school students. “We have a panel of women from different STEM careers and it’s open to younger girls who can pose questions,” says event organizer 17-year-old junior Kavya Mani. “We also give them an engineering challenge to solve. Boys join also.”
For Kavya, robotics has introduced her to a whole new community. “This is my second year on the team; What I like most is coming here and collaborating together; And you don’t have to build the robots; I have worked on mechanics, but also on the Chairman’s award; You can speak; It’s nice to share ideas.” Tyler just joined the team this past year at the suggestion of a friend. “I really enjoy it,” he adds. “It’s inspiring working with a robot.”
Helping new teams is one of the goals of Shrewsbury Robotics, which has launched a Facebook Page called ‘Humans and Robots of FIRST’ based on the ‘Humans of New York’ photoblog. “We talk to a lot of teens,” says Kavya. “If it’s their first year as a rookie team, we ask: ‘How’s it going?’ We try to promote the team if they are just starting out. Even though it’s a competition, it’s not just about our team. It’s about getting everyone to join and be inspired because we need more people in the STEM field.”
For the upcoming season, FIRST has joined with Star Wars creators. The theme: ‘FIRST RISE: the Force is Building,’ which focuses on building smart cities of the future.