The morning buzz created by a room full of students, teachers, mentors and parents suddenly turned silent as the video began. With Saturday’s online announcement of the 2014 FIRST Robotics Challenge, seniors at the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy were off on an adventure they’d been working toward for nearly four years.
Over the next six-plus weeks, the seniors — with the aid of teachers and volunteer mentors — will construct from scratch a robot that will take part in “Aerial Assist,” the game devilishly created by FIRST for the annual robotics event.
The DPEA group at the Elings Center for Engineering Education building joined more than 2,700 teams around the world in learning the rules of this year’s game. In Aerial Assist, each school’s robot will team up with two others to pick up, carry, pass and shoot air-filled exercise balls at targets on the playing field. Opposing robots will do the same, while both sides can “play D” to stop the other side. (Scroll down the page for an Aerial Assist animation video.)
Immediately after watching the video, academy director Amir Abo-Shaeer assigned students the difficult task of understanding a complex game. This year’s contest poses not only technical challenges, but also strategic ones. Teams can pile up points for “assists” to their teammates, in some cases worth more than goals scored by shooting.
“It’s a lot heavier on the team aspect, significantly so, than it’s been in past years,” senior Cole Smith said. “Cooperative ability will be very important.”
“Actually figuring out the rules and how points will be scored will be the biggest challenge,” added teacher Steffen Hausler. “For the skill sets they’ll need, they’re prepared. But no one can truly be fully prepared for the full gambit of what FIRST Robotics can present. It’s a mystery every time.”
To solve that mystery, DPEA’s robot will take part in several competitions. With DPEA’s long record of success — the 2013 team won both Los Angeles and Las Vegas regional titles, for example — current students are excited about the chance to finally dive into the action and continue that legacy.
“The competition is the best part of robotics,” senior Raven Bouregy said. “I am looking forward to having a robot, one that I can say, ‘I helped make this.’”
FIRST Robotics, which includes regional events in March and April and a national championship in late April, is the culmination of the four-year DPEA curriculum. Over the past three years, students have worked on the skills they’ll need to create this robot. For the past six months, they’ve worked hand-in-hand with mentors to learn even more about mechanics, programming, electronics, design, construction and more. The community mentor program is integral to DPEA, teaming experienced professionals with students.
“I’ve been impressed with how hard they work and how eager they are,” first-year mentor Tom Anhalt said. “I think the work they’ve done for the past six months, including a practice mechanism exercise, will really pay off for them to make this robot. They’re ready to dig right in to this game.”
The students will do more than dig in. Over the next six weeks, most students will spend every evening and any available nonclass time working on the robot. Each student is part of a specific team, such as electronics, mechanism or programming, but all the teams work together constantly to develop a winning robot.
Judging by the rules of Aerial Assist, teamwork appears to be the key victory. To complete the DPEA robot, teamwork will be equally important.
“I think it will be a great opportunity to develop camaraderie in our team,” senior Madeline Matthys said.
From his perspective as a teacher, Hausler echoes those sentiments.
“I want to make sure they get the best experience out of this, and make sure that we manage a great process this year," he said. "Everyone brings something unique to the program. Sometimes the group comes together, sometimes we lead them together ... every year is different.”
Stay tuned for updates as DPEA students team up to win in 2014.