by Marissa Lorenz
The West Grand High School Robotics Team #7224, also known as the Mechanical Mustangs 1.0, attended the Colorado Regional FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) Competition virtually on May 1, competing against 33 other teams. They ended the day as 3rd place winners of the prestigious FTC Think Award-and holders of immeasurable new skills and experience.
“I’ve been able to take so much away from FIRST Robotics. It’s just unbelievable how much I actually use it in my life,” says the team’s co-Captain, Levi Edson, a junior who has been involved in West Grand Robotics for seven years now.
“I have learned cooperation and ‘coopertition,’ learning to work together to solve a common problem and all the social skills necessary to do that; the drive it takes to come together as a team and get a robot built to compete in a season; and the problem-solving skills needed to overcome those problems, coming together-everyone helping to solve that problem,” Edson explains.
“One surprising thing I’ve learned,” agrees Senior Dominik Stefanik, the other team captain, “is speaking skills, how to project your voice and share your passion for whatever you’re doing–being able to convey that passion to someone who may have no idea what you’re doing.”
And first-year robotics student Susan McDonald, 2021 Project Manager and the only female currently on the team, notes, “You gain a lot of life skills–whether it’s gracious professionalism, navigating the workforce, or any other skill you don’t think you have down already…. It really strengthened my teamwork skills.”
FIRST is an international education non-profit that works with PreK-12 students “in exciting, mentor-based, research and robotics programs that help them become science and technology leaders, as well as well-rounded contributors to society.”
The FIRST Tech Challenge is meant to teach students to “think like engineers,” solving real-life problems by designing, building, and programming robots to compete in prescribed tasks. It is intended to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) skills
with hands-on learning; build community engagement, through such things as adult mentorship and community outreach; and expose students to possible educational and career opportunities.
In 2021, FIRST Tech teams were challenged to design, build, program, and operate a robot able to compete in an event called Ultimate Goal and resembling Ultimate Frisbee, in which robots scored points by shooting discs into a goal structure about five feet tall. Additional points could be earned by placing “wobbly” objects in specified areas.
West Grand students built their robot on a Mecanum wheel base system, explained co-captain Levi Edson. The platform permits a 360-degree range of motion and allows the robot to be “very quick and precise in the movements needed to score maximum points. (…) It can move so fast around the field!”
In a year where the program was moved to an exclusively out-of-school activity, when it had previously been a regularly scheduled class, the team consisted of seven high school students, all working together but each focusing on their designated roles.
Program veterans Levi Edson and Stefanik served as co-leaders, mechanical engineers, and robot drivers.
Team Captain Edson says he tackled preparation for the “Autonomous period,” one
of the competitive events, to create what he calls the “best Autonomous we’ve seen at West Grand; it was phenomenal!”
Team Captain Stefanik really worked to help his peers find their roles, “understanding what robotics is supposed to look like and where each team member fits into the overall mission.”
The two also had to work closely together to drive the robot itself, with Stefanik controlling the robot’s drive system and Levi Edson operating the robot’s arms and shooter. However, they say that they try to make sure that all team members “get some drive time.”
Program Manager McDonald was responsible for keeping the team organized, “making sure that everyone was in place and on time,” and for documenting the robotic season through an engineering portfolio chronicling the team’s organization; design, building, and programming history; fundraising and other outreach efforts; and community involvement.
Alan Gomez-Rivera and Kai Edson were this year’s programmers, writing the Java code that tells the robot what instructions to follow.
Landon Williams acted as manufacturing/design specialist, creating laser cut components and printing out 3D parts.
And Eric Gregory helped design those parts as the team’s Computer Aided Design (CAD) specialist, generating a 3D model of the robot using OnShape software and testing it out on
the computer before being built. Gregory also served as the team’s first-ever physics specialist.
“Previously, everybody had to help with the math on the robot,” says Levi Edson. “But it was really helpful to have someone who knows how to calculate trajectory, speed of the robot, and all the different aspects like that.”
“It is really great,” Levi Edson continues, “to see how far every student who goes through FIRST progresses, even in a single year. Everyone I’ve seen takes away something different, but everyone takes away improved team-building, problem-solving, and social skills.”
The students seem to feel unanimously about the role of the team in their individual lives as well.
“Robotics is more of a family than a team,” articulates McDonald. “You’re there all the time and pretty much all hours of the day. You learn that you need to be committed to staying together and working through your problems.”
The students were coached this year by former West Grand teacher/long-time Coach Lori Birch, who now works for FIRST as a curriculum developer; long-time mentor/sponsor Kurt Edson of Peak-to-Peak Services; and former West Grand Robotics student/team-member Jonathan Belcher, who stayed on to support the program management and provided media support, setting up audio, video, and live-streaming at competitions.
The team is supported by the West Grand School District, which covers all registration fees for one or two teams, competitive travel expenses, the cost of all robot/programming supplies, and pays for team tee-shirts.
The members of Mechanical Mustangs 1.0 encourage other students to check out the program if they have any interest in “designing and building things,” “programming or robotics,” or “program management and organization.”
The only downside, as expressed by some students, can be frustration when the community doesn’t fully understand what it is that the program does or when they aren’t supported or recognized in the same way that other sporting activities are sometimes supported.
But as Stefanik says, “People should know what they’re getting into. It can be very stress-inducing. There will be times when you will be frustrated with the world. But you’ve just got to hold out, and the robotics family will have your back, no matter what.”
Coach Birch observes that the program can always grow and improve. She notes that she would like to see more community engagement, especially in the form of mentorships, and would like to see the program re-incorporate such aspects as business management and accounting, skills that were more included when the team did active fundraising in the past.
Birch assures that potential mentors do not need to be experts or, indeed, know anything about robotics to provide valuable assistance. She invites anyone with experience in engineering, CAD, programming, business, accounting, project management, communications, or any other relevant skills to join the team, whether as an ongoing support, with a single one-on-one conversation about career guidance or workforce development, or anything in between.
For more information on FIRST Robotics programs, go to firstinspires.org.
To express interest in mentoring or sponsoring the West Grand Robotics program, contact Mrs. Taryn Edson at firstname.lastname@example.org.