Robots: Science Fiction to Science Fact
Spectrum 3847 - the Strake Jesuit and Saint Agnes Engineering Team

 "This is not your grandfather's high school shop class. In 2019. It’s CAD drawings, Gear Ratios, Prototyping, and 3D Printing. Today’s high school students are building robots."

By Michael DeMoor '20

In 2019, building robots to perform specific tasks does not sound as much like science fiction as it did 20 years ago. Robots ore, in fact, a very real port of today's world. In education, becoming more familiar with robotics con lay the foundation for a career at the cutting edge in fields such as science and engineering. Thus, as a by-product of the educational emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the creation of high school robotics programs and teams has exploded over the lost decode.

St. Agnes created an engineering team in 1996 while Stroke Jesuit's was founded in 2008. Since 2011, Spectrum 3847, the joint Stroke Jesuit/SI. Agnes Engineering Team, has competed locally, nationally, and internationally in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competitions (FRC) which combine the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology. "This team evolved out of two engineering teams, one from each school," noted Lead Coach Allen Gregory IV. "After competing against each other for three years, we were interested in undertaking a new challenge that would test our ability to the extreme."

FIRST, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the inspiration of students and the growth of science, technology, and engineering recognition in the world, provided an ideal arena for the team as ifs platform fit very well with the mission of the schools. "Teams in FIRST events do not just strive to win each event in which they compete;" said Gregory, "they also try to make sure that the rest of the teams competing are performing at their best and that everyone is having a good time. FRC teams train and mentor other teams and work together to make more competitive machines. FRC also stresses the development of each student outside of their technical skills."

In preparation for the FRC season, Spectrum spends the fall semester preparing students for the competition. Experienced team members and coaches help incoming members to find their way around the lab. They show inexperienced students how to use various tools and machines at the engineering lab. New members also learn the basics of prototyping about various parts that could be used in robot construction including gear ratios, pneumatics, and types of motors. Gregory also teaches a series Computer-Aided Design, or CAD design, classes. These CAD design skills are used later during the FRC season for part design and 3D printing.

For Spectrum 3847, the 'season' begins in every January with the big reveal, the announcement of the task for that year's FIRST Robotics Competition. Each year, the FRC has a new task or competition for which each team must build a robot. The team then has six weeks to build their 120-pound robot, followed by six weeks of competition. After the six weeks of competition, learns from dozens of countries who have earned berths gather for the World Championship series of games.

Robotics team members constructing their robot in the lab in preparation for competition.

 

During the build portion of the season, Spectrum prepares their robot for the competition season. In order to perform well in competition, the team spends several hours poring over the rules of the game including methods of scoring, legal and illegal builds, robot constraints, penalties, and various quirks of the game are examined in great detail. Once the rules have been examined and the team is familiar with them, team members prioritize goals and consider various approaches to the most important of these goals. Once approaches have been narrowed down, the team starts to prototype and develop various subsystems tor the robot. They then spend the entirety of the build season CAD designing and iterating parts of the robot until the team finishes its competition machine.

Once build season is over. Spectrum tokes its robot to multiple events over the competition season. FRC competition lakes place during events lasting multiple days. At these events, Spectrum and other teams are grouped together into alliances to compete against other alliances during the qualification matches. Depending on how well each team competes in the game and completes objectives, each team is ranked. For the elimination bracket, the highest-ranked teams can pick their own permanent alliance for the rest of the event. The teams in the winning alliance receive on invitation to the World Championships.

"We like to make the entire experience tie into the educational side of things," said Gregory. "Students get to see how the lessons they learn in school are actually applied. They are working on a project that is bigger and more complex than a lot of senior design projects for college engineers but we do it in the form of a sport and the students get to all work together on it like they would in a company. We need students lo contribute not only their math and science skills but also their language skills, design, skills, media, critical thinking, and more. Students are exposed to technologies that they wouldn't be learning until well into college and they get understanding early that these tools can be used to solve hard problems."

Spectrum has realized a great deal of success in the actual competition at both FRC and other events. Over the years they have won a number of events, been a finalist at a number of FRC events and in 2018, won the Alamo Regional, the first lime the team has won an FRC event. The team hos also earned five berths into the FRC World Championships. In addition to their success in competitions, Spectrum has also often been recognized on numerous occasions with special awards. They have received the Quality and Industrial Design award, the Gracious Professionalism Award at the 2017 Houston World Championships, the Chairman's Award, the most prestigious award in FRC given to the team that best embodies the values of the FIRST Robotics Competition, and the Engineering Inspiration Award at the 2018 Houston World Championship presented to the three teams who best promoted appreciation for engineering with their communities.

Spectrum 3847 received the prestigious Chairman's Award at the 2017 World Championships in Houston

Spectrum's activities are not limited to just competing in FRC. The team has built international relationships and hosted teams from China and Australia and participates in many demonstrations and educational conferences to display their robot and to encourage growth in STEM education. Every year, the team demonstrates their robot lo over 30,000 people at Comicpalooza. Spectrum also presented at a conference for STEM educators from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, reaching out to an organization representing thousands of students. The team also conducts a coding comp with Microsoft and a robotics camp at the Boys and Girls Club where Spectrum students personally mentor the kids at the camps.

As with the other extra-curricular activities at Stroke Jesuit in which students con be involved - sports, music, theater, debate, etc. - the Spectrum is more than just a means for students who share an interest to come together. It is much more than that. As stated in its Mission Statement, it allows students to "develop life skills through the promotion of premier qualities, such as amity, volunteerism, dedication, and ebullience."

In addition to promoting knowledge in STEM, Spectrum also encourages growth in other areas. Spectrum also gives opportunities to grow in English and presentation skills. As an example, for the Chairman's Award, the members of the team must write an extensive essay detailing the team's activities and how those activities serve to transform modern culture and increase appreciation in STEM. The team also composes a speech and must recite it from memory to the judges for the award. These opportunities that Spectrum gives show students that STEM and other subjects can be used together and are not mutually exclusive.

Spectrum helps its team members to grow in many ways. The team's activities in FRC allow its students lo experience intense competition while serving others and learning engineering and other skills. Spectrum's presence in its schools' communities helps make both more complete.

Robotics team members mentor youth at coding camp.