North Bay tech firms inspire next generation of robot programmers

Local tech companies might want to start paying more attention to the robotics team at Santa Rosa's Maria Carrillo High School.

This spring, the 23-member team finished 15th out of 65 teams at a three-day regional competition at the University of California at Davis on March 21–24. That's compared to scores in the 50s and 60s the past three years, when there was more input and participation from adult mentors.

“This year, the robot was really built by the students. In the past the adults helped quite a bit. We didn't have as many (student) brains working or thinking about the fabrication in the last few years,” said team engineering captain Scott Garcia.

“The program is intense. These kids put in a lot of time,” said team mentor Maya DeRosa, who is also the planning and building director for the city of Healdsburg.

The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition is a national nonprofit organization. The goal of the program is to help students discover and develop a passion for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and to inspire them to become science and technology leaders.

FIRST was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, an engineer, inventor and businessman best known for his invention of the two-wheeled, personal transportation device called the Segway.

There are now more than 3,000 teams competing in more than 56 regional events around the world with the goal of qualifying for the FIRST world championship.

“It's like the super bowl with the energy, the excitement. There are mascots, wild music, and people paint their faces,” DeRosa said.

Dubbed a “Varsity Sport for the Mind,” all participating teams in the competition receive the same robot kit in January, then they have six weeks to design, build and program their robot to use a scissor-lift system to grab and lift milk carton-sized boxes and place them on a type of teeter-totter.

“It's learning to find the simplest solution for a specific task,” added Kyle Reynolds, team safety captain.

Building the robot included a lot of trial and error, team members said, and a common problem is that these kinds of robots tend to lean to one side. The team tried to fix the tilt with springs alleviating tension on either side.

“FIRST is about building the skills for when we are older and can build things for companies. While this robot doesn't have a ton of applications in the workplace, it is helping us build a foundation so that when we're older we can build robots for companies in the future,” said Garcia.

During the six weeks of the program, mentors provide guidance in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and programming. This year help came from local companies including General Dynamics in Healdsburg, and Keysight.

Dave Goodreau, a senior systems engineer at General Dynamics, donates his time to various schools in the area, including the FIRST program at Carrillo.

“It's expensive to participate in the program. Students need to be serious about raising money, and about engineering to make sure the robot works,” Goodreau said.

At the regional events, teams are also judged on their business plan.

“It's an excellent program that gets kids to think and collaborate as a business team, and the whole entrepreneurial venture. It's great exposure to local businesses. Three team members presented their project to the management team at General Dynamics and I think the kids got more out of it than the business leaders,” Goodreau said.

But businesses also eye the students as possible future employees.

“I think that is definitely part of it. By them giving us money and mentors, and us learning engineering skills, and how to build robots, I think they're hoping we will stay local and end up working for them, so it will all come full circle,” Garcia said. To do that, companies will have to remain competitive.

Justin DeRosa was the 2017–2018 engineering captain and graduated this year. In the fall, he will be attending Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana, studying mechanical engineering. At this point, he'll go with whatever internship is most competitive, and is not sure yet if he'll return to Sonoma, he said.

In addition to the engineering component, the team learns about running a business. Each year the team must raise funds to purchase the kit, to travel to competitions and buy parts to customize their robot.

Business Captain Katrina Storie led her team in fundraising, and in supporting roles of treasurer, photography and social media. The team also created a power point presentation.

Last year, the team was challenged to fundraise during the 2017 October Wildfires. They created a business proposal and sent it out in cold-call emails, Storie said, not knowing what to expect.

But companies responded, as did FIRST with a special grant in response to the fires. About $11,000 was raised, with $5,000 going for the purchase of the kit, and another $5,000 went for entry into the competition. The rest was used for travel expenses.

“The robotics program gives students a beginners' experience of what it's like to run their own company. Basically, each team is their own business. Engineers are building robots but also getting sponsors, managing time, and practice networking skills,” Storie said.

This year, the team received financial sponsorships from a variety of companies including Qualcomm, Apple, National Instruments, Brin Wojcicki Foundation, Western Allied and the Maria Carrillo High School Parents Association.

The robotics team is open to all Maria Carrillo High School Students, grades 9-12. No prior experience working with robotics is necessary. However, as with participating on a sports team, a significant time commitment is required from each team member.

Along with STEM skills, FIRST promotes something called "gracious professionalism" and "coopertition." While competition is inherent in the program, students are taught to practice empathy and respect for other teams. It's possible to cooperate and compete at the same time.

Carrillo's robotics team also gives back to the community by mentoring middle school Lego robotics teams. In May, the team demonstrated their robot to middle-schoolers in conjunction with a robotics event sponsored by the Sonoma County Office of Education. On the team's wish list for next year is access to a more traditional workshop with tools and equipment conducive to building a mechanical robot. The team is also looking for additional mentors that would like to invest in coaching students through the design and development of the robot for the next season.

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