Robotics Teams: The Hardest Fun You Will Ever Have
Summary: Seattle Public Schools, in partnership with FIRST Robotics Washington, offers students the opportunity to learn about building robots.
SPS Robotics teams turn competition into camaraderie
The Hardest Fun You Will Ever Have
On a sunny Saturday morning in April at Nathan Hale High School, the Robo Raiders are serious and focused. They move like a coordinated group of surgeons, operating on a broken-down t-shirt cannon, a robot designed to project t-shirts into a crowd. The mood is tense, but the students make time for fun, because in Robotics, it’s about learning and laughing through your mistakes.
Seattle Public Schools, in partnership with FIRST Robotics Washington, offers students the opportunity to learn about the intricacies of building robots from industry professionals who serve as mentors to high school robotics teams. During the process, students are not only learning valuable trade skills while getting hands-on experience, but they are also getting a crash course in collaboration, teamwork, and learning how to bounce back after failure.
According to Bee Miller, a junior at Nathan Hale, being on the Robo Raiders team has raised her confidence level. She attributes it to the sincerity of her teammates and mentors in helping her improve.
“I’ve learned a lot more about engineering, but it also helped me gain a little bit more self-confidence because I started to ask more questions, and everybody was so willing to help.”
South End Super Team
When COVID led to the cancellation of sports last year, Garfield senior Michael Freeman went searching for a robotics team. Having only had one season under his belt, Freeman was hoping to do more competitive robotics before his high school career ended. After a quick search, he came across the XBOT #488 team at Franklin.
Across the district, eight high schools participate in Robotics: Ballard, Franklin, Garfield, Nathan Hale, Ingraham, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Rainier Beach/Skills Center. Students who attend schools that do not have a robotics team or want to compete on a larger scale are allowed to join teams at neighboring schools.
Team XBOT #488 is an after-school activity funded by XBOT Robotics, a company dedicated to providing educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields to students furthest from educational justice. It is open to Southeast Seattle students, and this year, the team included students from Franklin, Cleveland and Garfield.
Under strict rules with limited time and resources, teams participating in FIRST Robotics competitions are challenged to build industrial-size robots to play a tough field game in alliance with other teams. It combines the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology. Students get to show off their skills by competing against other schools around the state – and for those teams that do well – around the country.
Led by former mentor-turned-teacher Donna Lew, XBOT #488 traveled to Houston in May to compete in the FIRST Robotics World Championship. The team made it to the semifinals for their division, putting Team XBOT #488 among the top 10% of the teams competing at Worlds. At the World Championship, Freeman was the driver of the robot and helped with the programming.
“That was phenomenal … get up at 6:30 a.m. and you are reviewing strategies and plans then going to the matches and solving problems … it was just constant engagement the whole [time] I was there,” he said.
The structure of FIRST Robotics competitions makes it easy for foes to become friends. One of their guiding principles is “gracious professionalism.” It is a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community. Teams may be competing against each other in one round then on the same team in the next. It is not uncommon to see teams sharing tools and parts on the sidelines, helping each other troubleshoot what may have gone wrong when their robots fail.
“Robotics is really the first sport that I’ve been engaged in where the mentors all know the principle, ‘gracious professionalism,’ and the students all know the principle and they follow it,” Freeman said. “I remember at Worlds there were people coming around [saying], ‘Hey, I notice you’re fixing your robot. We’re from the other side of the stadium. Can we help you with anything?”
The friendly atmosphere is a top selling point when teams are trying to recruit new members. Team leaders work to build teams that are diverse and welcoming environments to all students.
While most teams are predominantly male, several of the robotics teams around the district have female leaders.
Garfield’s team is half girls, and several of them hold leadership positions. Senior Madeline Darby is the president of Lincoln’s robotics team, ChainLynx. She handles business and logistics for her program, but it wasn’t love at first byte. Darby said it took some time for her to get invested in the team.
“I got really interested in the things I could learn and started to pick up some programming skills as well as some electrical basics,” she said. “I found I was really enjoying the environment and wanted it to thrive.”
Mentors Matter Most
Because many of the students in Robotics come to the team with no prior experience, mentors are key in keeping the programs running. Ballard’s team, Viking Robotics, has about seven mentors. Some teams have as many as 20 volunteers who work with the students every week. They come with a wealth of knowledge, and students reap the benefits of working closely with industry professionals.
Emil Anderson has served as a mentor to Ballard’s robotics team for three years. He said Robotics is the “hardest fun you’ll ever have.”
“This program is so great because it combines business, marketing, social media, graphic design, computer science and programming … followed up with building the actual design and competing the robot,” Anderson said. “There are so many practical, real-world aspects the students have the opportunity to learn and experience.”
Watch Franklin’s FIRST Robotics semifinal match
Watch Garfield’s FTC Ultimate Goal Robot Reveal