Nine down and one important match to go: That's where the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy stands on Friday night after two days of competition at the FIRST Robotics World Championships in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Mo.
DPEA's Team 1717 is 8-1 and ranked seventh in their Galileo division heading into Saturday's finals.
The dome in St. Louis normally hosts hard-hitting NFL action from the hometown Rams. But this weekend, robots are doing the hitting and scoring as 400 rainbow-colored teams from around the world take part in the annual event.
A victory in March at the Long Beach Regionals earned DPEA a trip to this World Championships (the team also finished second at a Las Vegas Regional). As with the regionals, Team 1717, the robots and their human drivers are playing a game called Aerial Assist, in which teams of robots fling large balls around a field with an eye toward scoring goals.
For the DPEA students, the move from "local" to "world" came with new challenges and new experiences.
"It's a lot bigger than the other arenas," said team member Jieh Meinhold, who is one of the three students actually on the competition field. "It's kind of intimidating to see so many people watching."
"It's so much bigger than I thought it would be," team member Sophie Russo said. "The atmosphere is much more intense. The stress level is way higher here. But things have been going more smoothly with the robot, though, from how we did at regionals."
All the students pointed to their training over the past four years at DPEA as the key to the team's success so far, but they agree that the World Championships bring an extra level of focus and pressure.
"The projects we do at DPEA prepare you for an awareness of the technology and the hardware and the software, but they can't prepare you for the level of work required," said Alex Meiburg, who was part of the robot programming group.
However, DPEA teachers and mentors know that this experience for students is perfect training for careers in engineering.
"I am constantly drawing similarities between my professional work and what we do on the robot," said Doug Bowlus, an engineer with Goleta-based L3 Maripro and a DPEA team mentor since 2013. "In fact, just this morning I got a call from work with the same questions that I'm getting from students. One of the big takeaways for the students is experiencing the roller-coaster of engineering. You have your highs and your lows, but at the end it's all worth the hard work."
The roller-coaster was going up for Team 1717 after they won all four matches on Thursday, the first day of qualifying. In Friday's first match, DPEA put up another big score (225-151) to move to 5-0. However, even a clutch shot at the buzzer could not give them enough points to win the following game. In their seventh first-round match, DPEA bounced right back on the winning track. In this game, DPEA took on the unusual — for them — role of passer and defender. The strategy paid off with Team 1717's highest score of the tournament to that point.
After lunch, DPEA went to 7-1 with a 220-132 win. In the ninth and final match of two long days of competition, they triumphed 145-67. That left DPEA in seventh place with one more qualifying match to play on Saturday morning.
The top eight teams in their division (there are four, aptly named Galileo, Curie, Archimedes and Newton) will create three-robot alliances that will enter a winner-take-all mini-tournament Saturday morning. The winner of that will advance to join three other division champs in the final championship round, held appropriately on the Einstein Field.
An excellent FIRST Tracker app is available for robot fans to follow all the action on Saturday. DPEA's first match is scheduled for about 7:15 a.m. Santa Barbara time.
» Click here for more information on the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy.
— Jim Buckley is a communications mentor with the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy. Reporting was provided by Britni Tisdale. Photos by student Ashley Almada and mentor Paul Clay.