Robot builders compete at state tournament
“Three, two, one…robot!”
That cry echoed over and over through the Alaska Airlines Center Saturday afternoon, a signal to teams of some of the state’s smartest teens that it was time for battle. The announcement – provided by a very excitable young man with a microphone – was immediately followed by two minutes of quiet intensity as the teens used handheld controllers to move their handmade robots through a series of intricate maneuvers.
The FIRST Tech Challenge is a nationwide event that pits teams of high school students against each other in a competition designed to test their robotics, engineering and computer programming skills. This year, three teams from Eagle River High School and one from local Boy Scout Troop 230 made the state finals, which were held Jan. 27-28 at the Alaska Airlines Center, a facility that typically hosts sporting events and rock concerts.
On Saturday, however, the building was reserved for hackers rather than hoopsters.
“This is fun,” said Gage Friesen, a member of an Eagle River High team called the “Nuclear Wolves.”
Friesen had reason to be having fun. The three-man Nuclear Wolves team won multiple honors at the weekend competition, including a second invite to the prestigious Super Regional tournament in March.
Friesen’s teammate, Chris Goolsby, also took home an individual honor as he was named one of three state finalists for the FIRST Dean’s List.
But winning isn’t why the teams of between three and 10 high-school age students formed in September with the goal of building the best robot athlete in the state. It’s a lot simpler than that.
“Even when you’re not winning it’s just a lot of fun,” Friesen said.
Teams formed around the state this fall and were given a “game” that would be played at qualifying matches in December. Students were given a kit of parts in September and go from there. They have to wire, construct, solder, program and design the robots on their own.
“They start with just toolboxes and ‘stuff,’” said Matthew Prnka, who directs the robotics program at ERHS.
This year’s game called for robots to dunk large rubber balls into a raised basket and gather small plastic balls and toss them into a goal inside the square arenas on which the small, blocky, wheeled robots competed against each other. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is.
“It has a lot of work to it,” said Ben Talotta, a member of the Techno Wolves team.
The mental challenge of building a robot from scratch over the course of a few weeks was something participants stressed. The work requires constant attention to detail and often requires mind-numbing precision and the possibility that anything can go wrong at any time.
“The whole robot basically fell apart in a span of five minutes,” said Goolsby, recalling one particularly troublesome moment during the build process.
Even the most mundane tasks can be excruciating when it comes to the intricate programming and engineering work done by the teams, who came to the state tournament from across Alaska.
“Having your whole robot fall apart is one thing, but having to spend three hours to tighten a screw is another,” he said.
Prnka said the school has been participating in the robotics competition for six years. This year the program attracted 28 students divided among five teams. All were boys, although in the past Prnka said more girls have gone out for the program.
He said this year’s teams put in nearly 5,000 total hours working on their robots, including more than 3,000 by the school’s top three teams.
“They spend more time in organized robotics than they do in their regular classes,” he said.
The state competition featured two days’ worth of robot battles, pitting teams against each other over and over again to determine the top bot. In between rounds, teams tinkered with their machines, fixing glitches in wiring or programming in a pit area in the arena’s upstairs gym decked out in colorful indoor tents and piles of junk food.
Programmer Joseph Musick of the Techno Wolves said he likes engineering aspect of robotics.
“I just really like taking things apart and seeing how things work,” he said.
On Saturday, the top teams through qualifying squared off in a bracket-style tournament.
The Troop 230 team — known as the “Quantum Mechanics” — went undefeated during tournament competition and earned a spot in the U.S. West Super Regional Tournament in Tacoma, Washington. Made up of 17-year-olds Jason Woodring and twins Alex and Michael Reber, along with 15-year-old Zion Bennett, the team took home a number of honors. The team won the Think Award for keeping the best engineering notebook and took second in the Control Award for being the team that “uses sensors and software to enhance the Robot’s functionality on the field,” according to the FIRST rules.
The team also took third in the Promote, Design and Innovate awards.
“I just can’t say enough, I’m ecstatic,” said coach Brad Woodring of the team, which includes three Eagle Scouts in the Reber twins and Jason Woodring.
Woodring said the team worked nonstop since September on the project.
“This is hundreds of hours of work,” he said.
The ERHS Nuclear Wolves were eliminated in the semifinals, but came home from the tournament with a slew of awards, as well as an invite to Super Regionals, based on their performance. Prnka said the tournament brings together to top 72 robotics teams in 14 states to compete for a spot in the FIRST World Championships. The March event is the second time the team has been invited to the Super Regionals.
The team won the state competition’s PTC Design Award for industrial design. The award “recognizes design elements of the robot that are both functional and aesthetic.”
The Nuclear Wolves (Chris Goolsby, Gage Friesen, Ryan Sabroski, Alex Oleniczak, Isiah Bauzon) also took second place in the Motivate Award (for the team that “exemplifies the essence of the FIRST Tech Challenge through team building, team spirit and exhibited enthusiasm,”), second in the Think Award (for the team that “best reflects the journey” it took as detailed in its engineering notebook), third in the Connect Award (for “the team that most connects with their local STEM community” through community outreach and strategic planning) and third in the Inspire Award for “acting with Gracious Professionalism both on and off the playing field.”
“The three teams represented our school, their families and themselves with the highest integrity and character,” he wrote in a Monday email detailing the team’s honors.
The Phantom Wolves (DJ Douthitt, Brandon Hondolero, Bobby Tillman, Keith Sellers and Jakob Fultz) finished third in qualifying and were also eliminated in the semifinals. Prnka said the Phantom Wolves were the only team ranked in the top four places at every tournament this year. The Techno Wolves (Joey Musick, Cole Mooty, Jack Moseley, Greg Talotta, Ben Talotta, Hayden Taylor) took third for the Promote Award, which is given for a competition among teams to create a minute-long PSA video designed to change culture and celebrate STEM education.
Most of the participants in the program said they plan to go into engineering or computer science fields in college. Prnka said past participants are now at Ivy League schools, and rattled off a list of prestigious schools across the country as proof of the program’s worth.
“There’s the value of the program,” he said. “If you want your kids to get an education, put ‘em in this.”
Participants said they learned a ton of lessons.
“It teaches you skills you’ll need later in life,” Goolsby said.
More than that, however, the program teaches cooperation between team members working toward solving a problem. When students work after school on their robots, they don’t view opposing teams as competition, but as co-collaborators.
“It’s basically like we’re all in this together,” he said.
Friesen said the technical training and career benefits are nice, but the biggest thrill is getting to see the robots come to life.
“Just being able to see your robot work,” is the best part, he said. “It doesn’t always, but when you do something right it’s like, ‘Yes!’”
UPDATE: This story has been altered from its original print version to include details about the Troop 230 Quantum Mechanics team.