Pac-Man, tutus compute at robotics event
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Technology – and tutus.
A robotics competition just wouldn’t be the same without throwing both into the mix, at least not if you ask RoboKrew, the 20-member, “Pac-Man”-themed, high-spirited robotics team from Tolleson Union, University and La Joya Community high schools. They were just a few of the hundreds of high school students competing Friday and Saturday in the video game-themed 2018 Arizona Regional FIRST Robotics Competition at Grand Canyon University Arena.
Some RoboKrew members donned poufy, colored tulle ballet tutus to match the color of the “Pac-Man” ghost cut-outs they also wore. Others dyed their hair lime green for an extra measure of color.
“Since this year’s theme is Power-Up, all the teams wanted to show their spirit in a ‘Pac-Man’ theme,” said Andrew Milakovich, the team’s engineering mentor, who himself sported lime green hair (and beard).
Just minutes before, Milakovich and his student mentees planted themselves behind a Plexiglas wall, where they controlled their ‘bot – a towering, 4-foot tall technical marvel with quite the mean lifting arm, one that uses pneumatics for gripping. Their robot zipped around the playing field lifting and delivering “power cubes.”
In this year’s game, Power-Up, two alliances of video game characters and their human operators are trapped in an 8-bit arcade game. To escape, the alliances must defeat the boss, and they have three ways to do so: by owning the scale, or switch, which means tipping the giant scale on the field of play in the team’s favor using power cubes; by exchanging power cubes for force, boost or levitate power-ups, which give teams timed advantages during the 2 1/2-minute match; and by climbing the scale tower to face the boss.
The student-designed robots, which can weigh up to 120 pounds, are autonomous in the first 15 seconds of play before human competitors get to remotely control their ’bot for 2 minutes, 15 seconds.
RoboKrew members had just competed in their second preliminary round – they would be showing off their robotics prowess in something like eight or nine preliminary rounds Friday — and were in their designated team area behind the field of play. Team co-president Jiaqi Lee was busy making some programming tweaks to the robot’s arm with Milakovich close by.
Unlike other robotics competitions, FIRST teams work with volunteer professional mentors, such as Milakovich, whose day job is working as an electrical and computer engineer with water utilities company EPCOR.
“I was a student in this about 12 years ago,” he said. “It’s fun. Mentors get to work with the students, so it’s not just high school students getting to figure it out on their own.”
Milakovich said being involved with RoboKrew also lets him tinker with mechanical building, something he doesn’t get to do as an electrical engineer.
Five mentors work with the Pridetronics robotics team at Mountain Pointe High School, the Arizona State FIRST Robotics Championship winner in 2016. One of those mentors is Charlie Smith, a retired information technology professional who worked for the city of Tempe. Like the students on the team, he donned a green elf hat like the one worn by protagonist Link in “The Legend of Zelda” video games.
“My son started this team at Mountain Pointe High. He was the first-year and second-year president. He had such a good experience that I decided to pay it back,” Smith said.
Mountain Pointe chemistry teacher and robotics club advisor Catherine Hansen said she and the students have learned a lot from their professional mentors.
“They (students) can come in with no knowledge of it (robotics),” she said, adding that the mentors will give them that knowledge.
Faith Cisneros, a junior at University High School, was bright-eyed behind her competition-required goggles after RoboKrew’s second preliminary event.
She said she came from a school that didn’t have any science. Now she’s the co-president, with Lee, of RoboKrew.
“I wasn’t expecting to do as much hands-on things. I’m glad to have an environment where they expose you to these kinds of things,” Cisneros said.
At Mountain Pointe, Hansen said STEM — science, technology, engineering and math – is big, as it is with many schools across the nation as educators work to develop more engineers, computer scientists and the like.
“It’s increasing,” she said. “We’re going to have 10 engineering classes next year. We have five this year. And last year, we started one day a week that’s just for girls, so to encourage girls (to study STEM fields).”
Firebird Robotics team member Evan Seeds, a senior at Chaparral High School, said next year his school is planning to add a robotics honors class for a science credit. The biggest club in the school is robotics, with 59 members.
The Chaparral Firebird Robotics Team went with a “Futurama” video game theme, dubbing its ’bot Zoidberg, after the “Futurama” crustacean-like character.
After the preliminary rounds, teams moved up to the finals for the second day of competition Saturday. Regional winners then go to the FIRST Championship Worlds Competition. The event has grown so large that the worlds are held in two locations, in Houston and Detroit.
This is the fourth year GCU has been the host for the FIRST regional event, which featured 41 teams — 40 from Arizona and one from New Mexico.
It was a chance for the University to showcase its engineering and STEM offerings, said Cori Araza, Strategic Educational Alliances K-12 STEM Outreach Director. But it was also a chance for GCU to spotlight how it gives back to the community.
“GCU’s reputation for giving back is evident in the robotics sphere,” Araza said. “For example, one of our freshman engineering students, Cameron Lievsay, actively mentors the students on Team Paradise.”
In the end, it appears that making it to the worlds event isn’t the reason many of the students join their school’s robotics team.
“It’s a community thing,” said Firebird Robotics team member Noah Stegman, an 11th-grader at Chaparral. “It’s fun going around talking to the other teams. It’s very social.”
Manuel Guerrero, a student at University High and a member of RoboKrew (complete with pink tutu), said he was shy but that being on the team has allowed him to meet more people. He said teams will ask one another for strategies or they’ll lend each other tools.
“Coming into the club fostered that passion for science and math that I had,” he said, adding that he hopes to one day become an astrophysicist.
University High’s Matthew Morton said, “I like the fact that it’s something hands-on, but you’re also doing it with a team. You just want to see it (your robot) succeed.”
The fun of robotics for many of the teens at these games is just finding your tribe and being with people who share your interest.
Chaparral High Firebird Robotics team member Amanda Sharkey, a sophomore, said, “Everyone is so nice and supportive. It’s such a good environment.”
Cisneros added, “There’s a lot of people here you get to meet — a lot of people like you.”
You can reach GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten Shults at 602-639-7901 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.