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.