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The City Journals

AMES robotics alliance helps team to compete at worlds, make friends worldwide

Jul 01, 2019 04:03PM ● By Julie Slama

In mid-April, the AMES robotics team competed at the FIRST international championship, the first time in school history. (Photo courtesy of AMES)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

It was a wild card that allowed 26 Academy for Math, Engineering and Science students to compete at the FIRST international robotics championship.

For the better part of the school year, those students, along with 14 more of their classmates, have been immersed in learning about gears, gaskets and gadgets, all with the goal of building and programming their robot to accomplish missions.

It was the pairing of their alliance, which helped the AMES robot qualify at the Utah regional in late March for the FIRST world championships, which was held April 17 through April 20 in Houston, Texas.

“This was our best year for our robot,” AMES robotics coach and engineering and physics teacher Doug Hendricks said. “It was the most reliable and more functional. We strategically picked and chose what we could do.”

In the competition, “Destination: Deep Space,” robots constructed by high school students during a six-week build time, are given tasks to complete. The teams make alliances with teams across the country and world to complement their robot’s functions.

“FIRST wants you to strategically make partner alliances and when you design your robot, you’re keeping that in mind,” AMES robotics coach and physics and math teacher Cameo Lutz said.

This year’s two-and-one-half minute mission was to fill the supply ship with cargo pods or large plastic balls and attach a hatch to ensure the balls won’t roll out. But it just wasn’t that; each alliance also played defense to limit the progress of the competing alliance. 

FIRST stands For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, something that motivated the competition of 40 teams from across the world. Several higher educational institutions from Rice University to MIT watched high school robotics students competing and reached out to some, sharing with them their programs.

The AMES team met up with other robotics teams from Missouri, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Brazil, China, Mexico and Cottonwood High — the team they mentored and share the same building.

“We’ve talked with them for years and it wasn’t until this year when the refugee teacher heard about it, that they formed a team. We mentored them, allowed them to use our tools and loaned them a practice robot to get started. We managed to get pit areas side-by-side so it was very cool that we were paired up as alliances in that last match,” Hendricks said about the team that has 14 students from other countries and was aptly nicknamed the Cottonwood High Underdogs.

While AMES students didn’t step up to the platform to win the grand prize, they did tour NASA’s facilities seeing a full-size mock-up of a space station as well as where astronauts train in addition to making friends with some top teams.

“We talked to them and learned what it takes to be a world-class team. It’s very enlightening and frightening. Some of these teams have full-time mentors, thousands of students in their programs and financial resources we can only imagine,” he said.

However, they were able to get some tips on technical components, programming and fundraising, which they plan to put in motion with the upcoming season. Those and more teamwork strategies are something Lutz was looking forward to when the team returns to practice in the fall.

Many team members enroll in classes taught by Hendricks and Lutz as well as physics and math teacher Sara Whitbeck-Zacharias, who also helps with the robotics team.

Hendricks also said he’s hoping through classes, students will have a more in-depth understanding of electronics, motors, pulleys, gears and transmissions and will put that knowledge in place in this fall’s robotics game.

This summer, the team was scheduled to hold a summer outreach camp, sponsored by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development-STEM Action Center, in June where elementary and middle school students learned about the engineering design process, 3D printing, programming using a LEGO Mindstorms EV3 as well as teamwork and presentation skills.

Already the team has helped two LEGO league teams begin this year at Woodstock Elementary, which Hendricks said has generated excitement and is giving these students hands-on robotics experience.