Many Firsts for IHS FIRST Robotics

Pia Stewart & Ashton Flather, Journalist

FIRST is an organization that has over 600,000 student participants in about 110 countries world wide. The organization is comprised of 3 distinct groups: FIRST Lego League (FLL), FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), and FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). FLL is a league that is available for preschool through 8th grade students to participate in. Students compete with table top Lego robots that are programmed and built with mentor guidance. FTC, grades 7th through 12th, is a league in which students compete with medium sized robots, where the maximum starting size is 18 by 18 inches. Their competition field is about 11 by 11 feet. FRC is similar to FTC in age, allowing students in grades 8th through 12th. Students compete with 30 by 60 inch robots in about 26 by 54 foot fields. FIRST has been identified internationally as the STEM career pipeline; about 81% of FIRST alumni declare majors in STEM fields. 

Ipswich High School’s Robotics Team competes in the FIRST Robotics Competition League. We are team number 5459. This means that we are the 5459th team to join FRC. In FRC specifically, a “mission” video is released the first Saturday of each year in an event called “Kickoff”. In this video, students are presented with a series of challenges that their robot must be built to complete. For the next 8 weeks teams design, CAD, and prototype a robot based on their team’s strategy for that season; they then build, wire, program, and test the robot in preparation for the 8 week competition season. Beginning in March, each team will have at least 2 competitions in which they compete with and against about 40 other teams in their district. Each team has 12 two-and-a-half minute matches in which they are paired with 2 other teams, and against 3 teams in blue and red “alliances”. The alliances strategize before each match in order to take advantage of the strengths of each robot to score the most points, and win the match. At the end of the 3 day, 30 hour competition, the 40 teams are put into a master rank based on their wins, losses, and ranking points. The top eight teams become “alliance captains”, and choose 2 other teams, based on their ranking and scouting data, that they believe will best suit their robot. The eight alliances then compete in a bracket. Teams may receive “district points” that qualify them for the District Championship Competition. Winners of the District Championship, and of certain awards, then qualify for the World Championship in Houston Texas.

5459’s rookie build and competition season was in 2015, and we proudly received the Rookie All Star Award. The following year, 2016, we received the Judges Award. In the 2019 season, we received the Engineering Inspiration Award, which we would then go on to win in the 2023 season. This year’s game consisted of placing cubes and cones on different nodes, as well as balancing on a ‘charge station’. Our team was able to excel through our autonomous mode, which occurs during the first 45 seconds of every match where the robot cannot be controlled manually, only by pre-programmed code. Robots then go into a tele-operational period where they are controlled either by a single driver, or both a driver, and an operator–who controls all the robot’s subsystems. On our team usually the latter occurs. This year our robot had a button that allowed the driver to “flip” the drive train left-right, front and back; this feature decreased our team’s “cycle-time”, by not requiring us to actually rotate the robot 180 degrees. Our robot also included a set of LED lights which signaled to our other teammates what type of game piece to feed to our robot (a cone or cube), and to our driver what direction the robot was going. Because of this aspect of the design, we were awarded the Industrial Design Award–our first machine award–at our first competition of the 2023 season.

During our second competition of the season just a week later, Team 5459 ranked 8th, making us alliance captains for the first time in team history. This feat would help propel us to the New England District Championship. Because of our community outreach and focus on getting everyone involved in STEM, we again received the Engineering Inspiration Award(EI) at the regional level, which solidified our spot at districts, a four day competition in Springfield MA. Although we did not perform as well as we wanted to on the field at districts, we were again chosen as recipients of the EI Award at the district level, allowing our team to qualify for the world championship for the first time in team history. Due to scheduling conflicts we were not able to physically attend however it was still a great accomplishment.

Team 5459 is unique in many ways, while most teams encourage a collaboration between adult mentors and students, our team considers ourselves “white glove”. This refers to the idea that if our mentors were to put on white gloves at the beginning of the season, they would be white even after the season, showing that they do not work on the robot. While they are there to support us and give us guidance, ultimately, every line of code, every bolt, and every gearbox is put together by students. Our accomplishments this past year are outstanding not only because we made it to the level of competition that we did, but because our 100% student build robot is competing against teams that have professional engineering support.

When asked about what drew her to join team 5459 as an eighth grader, senior, and business executive Dana Falardeau responded, “I first was drawn to the team simply because I did not have a ride home from school; however, after getting to know them, I was roped in and loved the environment. I don’t think high school would have been the same without being on the team.” There are many roles available on the ream, Falardeau being the business executive, dealing with mostly grants and funding as the team does not receive funding from the school. Unlike most competitive sports, being a part of the first community provides for a collaborative, not competitive environment between teams. “ Our team is cohesive” says Falardeau “because of small numbers and no competition within the team; everyone has a role, unlike in other activities where there are starters and a bench.” When asked about his favorite moment from this year, team head mentor Scott Jewell spoke to the close bond the team has that allows them to succeed. “At the district championship, a steel sun gear sheared inside the gearbox that controls the claw. The students rushed back to their pit to diagnose and fix the problem by taking apart the entire claw and entire motor and gearbox in 21 minutes between matches. They were able to work cohesively as one in near silence, and by the next match, the robot was functioning as normal.” 

Participation in FIRST is an incredibly valuable opportunity, because students are able to get real world experience in collaborating with other teams, designing and producing a robot under a time crunch, and maintaining a sustainable “business” through recruitment and grant applications. This year 5459 has five graduating seniors, 4 of which are going into engineering, the 5th, our programming executive, is going into computer science. Without their FIRST experience, Dana, and many others claim that they may not have chosen the major they did.