The Ringers

The Ringers

Meredith Broyles

Students like sophomore Akash Gudiseva will have a chance to compete for scholarships totaling over $16 million.

On a Saturday afternoon, sounds of drilling, sawing and clanging of metal rattle out of science teacher David Schaar’s room throughout the rest of Decatur High School.

The Robotics Team has been working feverishly since school began three times a week preparing for their upcoming annual competition called the F.I.R.S.T Tech Challenge (FTC). This year’s competition will be the second for the team.

For 22 years, the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (“FIRST”) organization holds robotics competitions for several age groups. These competitions strive to expand students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Schaar has been working with students in the Robotics Club since it formed last year. Some Decatur students participated in an FTC team outside of the school last year. This interest made many parents and teachers begin to start up the club through Decatur.

The lack of an experienced supervisor caused a setback in the formation of the club, but quickly resolved when the parents contacted the Systems Engineering Manager at Qcept Technologies, Jeremy Roberts for the position. Currently, Roberts and his wife Sarah Phillips are both coaches of the team along with Schaar and a few other coaches and mentors.

The team is grateful to have Roberts. “He made this team happen because he knows so much,” sophomore and team leader Lexi Ritter said.

Roberts has many motives for his involvement with the team.

“We’re trying to encourage critical thinking skills and problem solving, and those skills lend themselves to almost any career that a student wants to go into. That’s why I do this,” Roberts said. “It’s not just about building the robots, this program is about inspiring not only the students in the program, but individuals outside of this program to be more involved in STEM initiatives.”

Professionals, like PT, Ph.D Joy Bruce, who manages the Spinal Cord Injury Lab at the Shepherd Center, agrees.

“I think participating in high school robotics is great. At the Shepherd Center we use over a million dollars worth of robots to help patients recover after traumatic brain injury,” Bruce said.

As a Georgia Tech graduate with a computer engineering degree, Roberts brought a lot of knowledge to the team. Roberts participated in an F.I.R.S.T. Robotics Competition (FRC) team in high school.

FTC is a less difficult version of an FRC due to its shorter preparation time and less challenging requirements. The team splits up into sub teams for the FTC competition they are competing in. The FRC requires much more preparation for the creation of a robot roughly the size of a human, which will require the whole team to collaborate. The team will begin preparation for FRC
in the spring.

For the upcoming FTC competition the Robotics Club is divided up into three teams with just under 15 students in each. Ritter and junior J.T. Herndon are captains of one team, while the other two teams are individually lead by sophomore Ruby Lewis and senior Jonathan Saenger. Roberts chose the team leaders based on their dedication, ability to work collaboratively and ability to lead and follow. Members of each team are involved in Outreach, Programming, Imagery and Building.

The Outreach team finds sponsors, those in Programming work with computer software, the Imagery team works with graphic design, and the Building team constructs the robots.

The team prepares for a competition by first watching the animated video posted by the FTC organization. Then, the team can organize their priorities for how to model the robots. The process requires well thought out strategies on how to obtain maximum points through building and programming.

Next, the team members draw up sketches and vote on a design based on time and materials provided. The materials used for making the robots come in an FTC kit. If other materials are needed, the team’s sponsors pay for the necessary parts with a close budget of $35,000.

Then, the team starts building. During construction of their robots, they make sure to closely follow the rules of the competition. The students frequently encounter problems during the building process.

“You can’t even imagine every little thing that goes wrong,” junior Adam Garlow said. “It’s stressful but there’s no drama, no one gets mad at each other. Everybody just works together.”

Finally, the teams go to qualifiers. Their first qualifier was on Dec. 1 at the Gwinnett School of Math, Science and Technology. One of the teams made it to the final four in the elimination round, but did not advance. Each of the three teams will continue to try to qualify for state. Qualifiers also provide more practice and an opportunity to check out their competitors. At the qualifiers the teams constantly improve their robots. The Decatur teams enjoy interacting with other teams at the qualifiers.

“It’s a really friendly environment, and one of the criteria of F.I.R.S.T. is helping each other,” Ritter said. “Everybody [at the competition] is so nice and wants to help you.”

After qualifiers, the Decatur team continues to make changes to perfect their robots before going to state. Each year the FTC competition involves a different game for the teams to compete in. Teams are paired up, and compete against one and other.

“We get randomly matched with another team. So sometimes it will be two Decatur teams together and we will work together, but sometimes, we are going against a Decatur team,” Ritter said.

At the start of the game, the robot can only run on preprogrammed instructions called the Autonomous Period. During this period, scoring is determined by specific tasks achieved by the robot, each worth a predetermined number of points.

The period that follows is called the Driver-Controlled Period, during which the team members can guide the robots by remote control to perform tasks. Those tasks reflect the strengths in engineering design and strategy of the team members.

Last year, the team, mostly made up of freshmen and only a few upperclassmen, went to their first FTC competition. They competed against about 50 schools from around the southeast. They qualified for the state finals.

“Our robot could lift the crate five feet, while other robots could lift the crate 20 feet,” sophomore Gabe Weber said. Although the team didn’t continue on, they went home with several awards.

This year, the FTC competition is called “Ring It Up”. All three teams are making a robot for the upcoming competition.

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During the Autonomous Period, points will be earned when rings are placed on a peg that emits infrared signals that the robot can detect with a sensor.

During the Driver Controlled Period, scoring will be determined by the number of rings placed on pegs of three distinct heights. The placing of additional rings that are three times heavier will increase the teams’ score. Points will be awarded for placing rings in any three-in-a-row arrangement like in the game Tic-Tac-Toe. Bonus points are granted for lifting partner robots.

All members of the team, including the coaches, agree that the team’s evolution has created a clear path for advancing further in this year’s competition compared to last year’s.

“I think that all three of these teams can make it to the state championship and hopefully past there to the international event,” Roberts said.

The team gained valuable experience from last year’s competition. The addition of team leaders has created more organization this year.

“The whole design process has been way smoother and way more organized than last year,” Ritter said. “I think people came back this year with a lot of knowledge and we learned so much last year that when we came back this year we knew how to get started and how to get rolling.”

This new knowledge has propelled their excitement this year.

“This year, at the start of the season, as soon as they had the competition release in September people really jumped on the competition and there was a flurry of activity. I’m really pleased with the initiative that everyone is showing this year,” Schaar said.

Roberts is pleased with the newly acquired members from the freshmen class because now “the team has almost doubled from what it was last year.” The group is also split evenly between male and female members.

The robotics club doesn’t just attract a certain type of student.

“These are students that are very well rounded and come from a variety of backgrounds that are working towards a common goal here,” Roberts said.

“We’re doing things that most other teenagers can’t do, so I think thats pretty cool,” Lewis said. “Yeah we’re nerdy, but we are also the millionaires of tomorrow.”