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Monday, March 18 , 2019, 6:57 pm | Fair 61º


Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy: A Bag of Parts and a Puddle of Tears

Team 1717 explains how a winning robot emerged from the bag

The 11th Hour

It’s 11:40 at night on a Tuesday, and 32 high school students, their teacher and a host of volunteer mentors are hard at work, even though some of them have been awake for two days straight. The center of activity is a five-foot-tall robot, or at least the skeleton of one. It’s far from done, with many major mechanisms unattached and some not even designed yet. And it’s supposed to be finished in 20 minutes.

This is a familiar position for anyone who has participated in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics, an international competition started by inventor Dean Kamen with the intention of getting students of all ages as excited about science and engineering as they are about sports or celebrities.

FIRST Team 1717, comprised of seniors in the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy from Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, distinguishes itself from more than 2,300 teams in the competition with its reputation for building top-notch robots.

Lindsay Rose, Freshman DPEA Member,1994-2009: A Robot In Her Memory

The D'Penguineers dedicated their 2012 season — and their award-winning robot — to a fallen teammate, Lindsay Rose.
The D’Penguineers dedicated their 2012 season — and their award-winning robot — to a fallen teammate, Lindsay Rose.

Four years ago, the current members of Team 1717 met each other for the first time. During their first year together, a member of the team, Lindsay Rose, died in a tragic surfing accident. The 31 freshmen vowed to build the best possible robot and to dedicate it in memory of their teammate. This year when their time came, it seemed that they may have bitten off more than they could chew.
Activity halts as the team’s head mentor, MacArthur Fellow Amir Abo-Shaeer, calls for a weigh-in. Silence falls over the room as each part of the disparate robot is placed on the scale, and the reading ticks upward until at last it stops at 116 pounds, just under the stringent 120-pound weight limit. That weight didn’t include a major unfinished mechanism, which was estimated to end up at 15 pounds. In seven years of competing in FIRST, it is the worst position Team 1717 has ever been in at the end of its six-week build season.

When the team first received its challenge for the year in early January — to build a robot capable of gathering foam basketballs and scoring them into hoops — none of them predicted they would fall so short on executing their design. In the history of the academy, Team 1717 had always been reasonably successful, advancing to the national level five out of six years and winning multiple awards for their robot design and construction. Despite these accolades and victories, the big win had always eluded the Dos Pueblos team.

The Genius Driving the Academy — Creating It Within a Public High School

The driving force behind the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy is its founder, Abo-Shaeer, a mechanical engineer working in the telecommunications industry who quit his job in 2001 to become a high school physics teacher. He felt unfulfilled in industry, and he wanted to make a positive difference in the next generation. After a few years of teaching, however, Abo-Shaeer was still not satisfied; the pressure to “teach to the tests” and the standard “way things are done” kept him from having the impact that he wanted.

Never one to settle, Abo-Shaeer decided to create the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, a four-year advanced educational program that would provide students with a hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education with real-world skills and experiences. The senior capstone project of the academy would be participation in the FIRST Robotics Competition. The overall goal was to provide a model for a new type of education that went beyond standardized tests and rote memorization. Keep in mind that this academy would be tucked into a public high school, not a stand-alone private program or a charter school.

Grass Roots Community ‘Skin ($$$) In The Game’

The creation of the DPEA was a step toward realizing Abo-Shaeer’s vision, but the academy only had the resources to accept 32 students per year — a fraction of the applicant pool. Undeterred by the limitations placed on his program, Abo-Shaeer discovered and applied for a matching grant offered by the state of California that would provide DPEA with $3 million to construct a state-of-the-art engineering facility, if $3 million in matching dollars could be found.

Parents quickly stepped forward and established the DPEA Foundation. They began the capital campaign at roughly the same time as the economic downturn in 2008-2009 and were thought to be lame ducks from the start by some. However, the community rallied, donating to support an innovative program and the visionary at the helm. Donations came from countless local companies and thousands of individuals, including a successful local entrepreneur, professor and business owner, Dr. Virgil Elings, who gave a cool $1 million.

The new 12,000-square-foot Elings Center for Engineering Education, completed in November 2011, allowed DPEA to more than triple its enrollment to 108 freshman. The new building includes a computer lab and enormous machine shop, highly increasing Team 1717’s ability to manufacture parts (moving out of the storage closet shop they had been in).

‘A Pile of Parts, and a Puddle of Tears’

With this new machine shop and a six-year tradition of success, the class of 2012 felt there was no way they could fail. If they all put in a few late nights, a working robot would surely materialize, just like it had every year. It wasn’t that the students cared any less than previous teams; they just didn’t have the same desire to “close the deal,” as Abo-Shaeer phrased it. Consequently, at midnight at the end of the six-week build season, the team bagged up “a pile of parts and a puddle of tears.” They wouldn’t have another chance to work on their robot until their first regional competition in Long Beach three weeks later.

Closing the Deal

That disheartening final night was a wake-up call for Team 1717. They realized that if they wanted to have any chance of living up to the successes of past years, they would need to step up to the monumental challenge that lay ahead. At the Long Beach competition, they would have just one day to finish their robot, so they needed to construct the unfinished ball-shooting mechanism and create a plan of action to make the most of that time. “Close the deal” became the team’s mantra, representing the importance of the push to finalize all their work.

Out of the Bag with a Vengeance — The LA Regionals in Long Beach April 5-7

When the Los Angeles Regional FIRST Robotics Competition in Long Beach arrived, spirits were higher, but the task ahead was incredibly daunting. Following a detailed plan of attack, students and mentors worked feverishly for hours, using every bit of time they were given. The “Pits” are an open area, making Team 1717’s intense scramble drill apparent to all their onlookers. Long-time admirers openly commented on how shocked they were that Team 1717 hadn’t got their act together this year. But, when the day drew to a close, the forlorn half-finished machine that had come out of the bag that morning had been transformed into a fully functioning robot. Its real test would come the next day, when qualifying matches began.

The answer came soon enough. After 10 qualifying matches, it was clear that Team 1717’s hard work had paid off. Despite some early struggles, the team had fought its way to the third seed in the competition. This guaranteed them a spot in the final elimination tournament, and allowed them to choose their alliance members for the upcoming matches. As it turned out, 1717 was chosen by the top-ranked team, Team 987 from Cimarron-Memorial High School in Las Vegas, and together, with Team 3512 from Orcutt Academy near Santa Maria, they swept through the finals to win the Long Beach Regional and earn a spot at the international competition in St. Louis.

Their status had risen meteorically since they had arrived, when there had been widespread doubt about their ability to compete at all. Now, with an Offensive Power Rating (OPR, used to measure a robot’s scoring capability) of eighth in the world, the Dos Pueblos team had become a force to be reckoned with.

Tears of Joy for Lindsay

That night, as their bus headed back home, the team shared their happy memories and stories of the past few days. What had once been a disparate group of individuals (including a water polo player, a jazz trombonist, an Eagle scout and a karate black belt) was now a close-knit team. Teammates Nicholas Perez and Shari Howard tearfully spoke of Lindsay Rose, about what a terrific athlete and DPEA student she had been. Everyone agreed that the robot and the team’s win would have made her proud. In addition to being the robot’s namesake, every Team 1717 NASA-style jumpsuit has an embroidered patch on the right shoulder with a bright red rose and the number 2, Lindsay’s softball jersey number.

All Eyes on Team 1717 at the Central Valley Regional in Madera, April 5-7

Team 1717’s second regional competition was held at the newly created Central Valley Regional in Madera. Some very strong teams attended, including two of the three 2011 world champions. This provided a taste of the level of competition that Team 1717 could expect to see at the national level. Having won at Long Beach, there was less pressure to win. As such, they could experiment more and practice some new techniques.

Right from the start, 1717’s robot and drivers showed their ability, putting up impressive scores in every match. The scouting team worked until 2 a.m. to decide which teams 1717 should ally themselves with for the final tournament, working through countless permutations of what-if scenarios, depending on how the ranking ended up. They continued undefeated to the end of the qualifying matches, and were ranked No. 1, giving them the chance to pick a dream team. With their final partners selected, 1717’s alliance swept through the elimination tournament, which culminated in a harrowing final match.

At the starting buzzer, one of their alliance partners, Team 330, The Beach ‘Bots from Hope Chapel Academy in Hermosa Beach, lost communication with the field (translation: they died). A sudden, severe hush descended over the crowd. Despite being undefeated in the elimination matches, even the most optimistic of 1717’s fans doubted their ability to survive in a two-vs.-three situation. To succeed, 1717 would have to outscore two top-ranked robots while maneuvering around the other alliance’s defensive robot.

The match progressed with both alliances shooting point-for-point. Slowly, 1717 began to pull ahead, hitting three-point shots from around the field. Team 1717’s omni-directional drive train outclassed the defense, and effortlessly maneuvered around the defending robot. With each basket, the noise level notched up and the entire stadium was soon on its feet. With seconds on the clock, 1717 was down by one point and scrambling to score. Their surviving alliance partner, Team 2102-Paradox Robotics from San Dieguito High School Academy in Encinitas, played stellar defense. In the last few seconds they rushed to balance on a teetering bridge; a bonus point maneuver.

When the final score of 82-71 appeared on the scoreboard monitor, the crowd erupted into a tumult of cheers. The D’Penguineers knew that their 12,000-plus hours had paid off, and they had clearly demonstrated that their robot is truly a champion.

Ranked No. 2: ‘Stealth Fighter’ with Their Sights Set on St. Louis, April 26-28

Team 1717’s performance at the Central Valley Regional raised their OPR rank to No. 1 (out of 2,322 teams) with an overall ranking of second in the world, and made them the talk of the FIRST community. A member of one highly ranked team posted on ChiefDelphi, the unofficial FIRST forum, that 1717’s robot “reminds (him) of a stealth fighter ... delivering a quick and accurate payload, then they’re gone before you even realize.” Another was quoted as saying that “1717 had built the robot that every team dreams of building at the beginning of the season.”

After playing nine placement matches, Team 1717 seeded second out of 100 teams with a record of 8-0-1. As the second-ranked team in the division, Team 1717 was able to select its preferred alliance partners. The crowd burst into cheers when the alliance of Teams 1717, 469 (International Academy High School, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.) and 2741 (Batavia, Ill.) was announced.
The stands grew silent with anticipation as Lindsay Rose was placed on the field in preparation for the first match of eliminations. Despite a nearly flawless autonomous period, it was clear that the robot was having issues. For nearly a full minute, the robot sat immobile on the field as the crowd groaned in frustration. Although they had to fight an uphill battle, Team 1717 and their alliance partners only lost by a small margin with a final score of 44-46.

During the next match, Team 1717 was able to play at full capacity for the duration of the match and display its legendary abilities. The match ended in a 86-45 victory.
Team 1717 was hopeful for a repeat performance in the subsequent match, but even after another great autonomous period, the team had all but conceded defeat when it became clear that 1717 was still facing technical issues outside of its control. The robot’s once-fluid movements across the field were broken up with sporadic periods of motionlessness. Beckoned by cheers, the robot would regain communication with the field, only to lose it moments later. As the final seconds of the match ticked down, the D’Penguineers thought their season had come to an end. However, a heroic full-court shot by Team 1717’s human player, Nick De Heras, secured a 61-58 victory, allowing the alliance to advance to the semi-finals.

The semi-final matches were disheartening as 1717 sat motionless in the field for match after grueling match. Despite having put up a strong fight, the D’Penguineers’ 2012 season ended on a low note.
The team’s disappointment was short-lived. The events at the awards ceremony later that evening gave the D’Penguineers reason to celebrate. The team was honored for their hard work with the Xerox Creativity Award, one of only five engineering awards given at the championships, for Lindsay Rose’s effortless maneuverability and overall design.

As a team composed entirely of rookie students, the last few months were full of personal growth and new experiences for each member of Team 1717. In the heat of the competition and its uncontrollable misfortunes, they learned that their motivation was not the glory of winning. Instead, they focused on displaying Lindsay Rose’s grace and beauty to make it truly worthy of its namesake. Despite their loss in the semi-finals of their division, their robot is ranked first in the world, which shows that Lindsay Rose contributed more offensively and defensively to its matches than any other robot — a testament to the team’s dedication and strong performance over the course of the season.

The New Cool

For expanded, exciting, details of a prior FIRST Team 1717 robot season, see The New Cool: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts by Neal Bascomb, Crown Publishing Group 2011.

» Click here for more information on the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy.

» Click here for more information on the DPEA Foundation. Click here to make an online donation.

— The Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy Public Relations & Event Reporting Team includes Jeff Gau, Justin Morris, Phillip Hodgson, Parker Olson, Sepideh Parhami, Danielle Tisdale and Chloe Warinner, all members of Dos Pueblos High’s Class of 2012.

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