Game on for robotics at GCU for FIRST competition

Hundreds of high school students on more than 40 teams competed at the Arizona West Regional FIRST Robotics event Friday and Saturday at GCU Arena. (Photo by Katie Severns)

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

“ROBOT!!!!” one robotics competitor bellowed as a warning to anyone who might be in his way as his team maneuvered its robot, via cart, between some of the 41 other teams gathered in booth spaces in Grand Canyon University Arena.

Teams begin the first 15 seconds of competition in blind mode, when a black curtain descends and they drive their robots manually using cameras or put the robot into autonomous mode. Full driver mode follows once the curtain rises. (Photo by Katie Severns)

The robot had just come off the field of play -- a massive scenario set up in the middle of the Arena, where six new competitor robots now on the field buzzed like busy bees around four towering, 10-foot-tall rocket ships. The robots furiously placed hatch panels on their rocket ships, then loaded the ships with “cargo" (actually orange rubber balls).

Teams could be in a pickle if they don't attach those panels to their ships. Without them, cargo is apt to spill out of the unsecured openings.

All this frenetic activity was part of the Arizona West Regional FIRST Robotics Competition, where hundreds of high school students from across the region vied against each other Friday and Saturday in the Arena.

It’s where GCU freshman accounting major Devon Lauffer found himself just last year, when he was a member of his high school’s robotics team at Notre Dame Preparatory High School in Scottsdale.

Now, as a member of the GCU Robotics Club, he finds himself in a new role – this time as a college-level robotics competitor who, along with his fellow Thunderbots, were slated to volunteer at the regional competition.

FIRST competitors say they enjoy spending time with teens who share their interest in robotics. (Photo by Katie Severns)

“My old team is going to be there,” Lauffer said at the Thunderbots’ recent STEM Bonanza workshop for fourth- through eighth-graders.

GCU Robotics Club adviser and electrical engineering technology instructor Ed Koeneman was involved in high school robotics with his own children.

“My kids started in the FIRST Lego League ...” Koeneman said. “It’s a fun thing to do. Not only does it teach them about robots but project-management skills and a little bit about budgeting.”

GCU’s Robotics Club made sure to sign up as volunteers for the FIRST Robotics regional event, Koeneman said, because events like it are so central to the club’s mission.

“Part of the club’s mandate is we do community outreach – we’re mentoring, putting on workshops and volunteering at events like this," he said, adding, "It’s important for high school students to see that college kids are continuing on in this fun world of robotics.”

This year’s game, called Destination Deep Space, touts an outer-space theme. Two alliances of deep-space travelers – a red team and a blue team – race to place hatch panels on their rockets and cargo ship, load valuable cargo for transport off the planet, and return to the safety of their habitat before a sandstorm sweeps through. Each team is assigned two rockets, one cargo ship and a habitat.

Teams fine-tune their robots and do problem solving before they hit the Arena floor. (Photo by Katie Severns)

In the first 15 seconds of competition, a "sandstorm" (a black curtain) blocks competitors from having a direct view of the field of play, and so robots must be controlled using autonomous mode, or they must be controlled manually by way of a vision system on the robots.

Teams compile points by having their robots successfully exit and return to their habitats, by securing hatch panels and by loading ships with cargo.

One of the teams getting ready for the field of play was North High School’s Cyborg Mustangs, which won both the judges' award and a service award.

Team member Samhira Babiker, a sophomore, said she joined North High’s robotics team last year “on accident." As it turns out, it was a happy accident.

“I actually liked doing it. I like, not only the people … but when they were teaching us to use the tools,” Babiker said, discovering she has an affinity for tools. “But what I love the most is the environment. Everybody is so friendly.”

According to FIRST, its Robotics Competition embraces friendliness in its core values, which includes “gracious professionalism,” meaning to compete with respect (no trash talking), as well as “coopertition,” the idea that teams can be competitors yet also can cooperate. Many teams may be paired together for an alliance in one match but may compete against each other in other matches.

Not every team in the 40-plus-team field that competed at the Arizona West Regional will make it to the FIRST Championship in April in Houston and Detroit. The championship will be attended by 70,000 people. (Photo by Katie Severns)

North High’s Cyborg Mustangs, like many of the teams, showcased their cohesiveness by donning costumes. While other teams wore glowing blue gladiator hats, bear ears or princess crowns, the Mustangs slipped on their butterfly wings to bring awareness to the problem of teen suicide, the Cyborg Mustangs' service project at the competition.

Team member Alan Canales said a robotics competitor they vied against last year committed suicide.

Attendees could color their own butterfly at the team's station.

North High's Cyborg Mustangs wore butterfly wings during competition to bring attention to their service project, suicide prevention. (Photo by Ashlee Larrison)

Sophomore Cyborg Mustang team member Joshwai Sharp said the butterfly “is used as a symbol of growth and metamorphosis.”

Freshman Andrea Rettke of James Madison Preparatory School of Tempe's Out of Orbit team asked passersby to take a survey about robotics team safety and handed out mini aliens and measuring tape as prizes.

“Safety is our core value on this team,” Rettke said of the space-themed Out of Orbit team, a theme meant to complement the FIRST Robotics Destination Deep Space game.

Rettke said she isn't as into technology or engineering as others might be, but she “wanted to try this and see where it leads me.”

Martin Hussey Jr. of Chaparral High School’s Firebirds Robotics Team (left) and Jordan Bradley of Mountain Pointe High School in Ahwatukee donned the buttons they have collected at robotics competitions through the years. (Photo by Ashlee Larrison)

Senior Jordan Bradley of Mountain Pointe High School in Ahwatukee also donned space-themed attire: an Elroy Jetson hat (Elroy Jetson is from the 1970s animated TV show “The Jetsons”), as did the rest of his school's Pridetronics team.

He wore dozens of buttons pinned to his clothing, as did senior Martin Hussey Jr. of Chaparral High School’s Firebirds Robotics Team. Over the years, Hussey has collected buttons from numerous teams at various competitions.

Bradley said he moved to Phoenix from Indiana his sophomore year, and “the team is what really helped me get a lot of friends,” he said.

Hussey said robotics has done the same for him – connect with a community of friends who share his love for robotics. “I’ve met people from Turkey, Chile, Jordan. I’ve met all kinds of folks and met friends through the robotics team.”

Both Bradley and Hussey will be moving on to college next year, and both plan to study mechanical engineering.

The Si Se Puede Foundation Degrees of Freedom, an all-girl robotics team, readied themselves to take the competition floor. (Photo by Ashlee Larrison)

An all-girl community team of predominantly East Valley girls, the Si Se Puede Foundation’s Degrees of Freedom, also competed at Friday and Saturday’s regionals.

Degrees of Freedom team member Gaby Hernandez spent many hours with her 14 teammates engineering their robot, dubbed Ugli Betty because the defense robot isn't the most demure machine.

Hernandez said the group met from 6 to 8 p.m. weekdays and all day on Saturdays and Sundays during the build period. She really likes engineering, “but the biggest thing is we’re really, really close.”

One thing that’s unique about the FIRST Robotics competitions is that teams are paired with mentors, who may be of any age and share their technical or nontechnical savvy with the team.

Pearson Schwisow, a freshman mechanical engineering major at Arizona State University, mentors his old high school team, James Madison Charter’s Out of Orbit.

“I always wanted to stay in the FIRST community,” he said. "Even if it wasn’t going to be this team, I wanted to mentor a team. As a mentor, it’s fun helping these kids grow."

He added, “They put pride and effort into what they do, and we’re here to help them achieve their goals.”

Contact GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: "Oobleck on deck at STEM Bonanza"

Fox 10 Phoenix: "40 teams to compete in robotics competition at GCU"

12 News: "Valley robotics team dedicates competition to officer killed by distracted driver"

GCU Today: "Thunderbots nail the nuts and bolts in 1st world finals"


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