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Waving our banner wildly, we counted down the seconds, not at the homecoming game, but rather the 2009 FIRST Robotics Competition Kickoff. With only six weeks to build, wire, and program a 120-pound machine, my team jumped headfirst into brainstorming. Our options included a robot that hoarded the purple and orange Moon Rocks, shot them into enemy goals, or rolled them into air locks . . . with unlimited mechanical and software solutions for each strategy. As captain, I led the brainstorming effort and concentrated on getting everyone’s ideas on the table while also keeping discussion moving forward. We soon narrowed our options down to two strategies: one an elegant ball dumper, the other a superlative shooter.
“Our team has never been more prepared to shoot for the moon.”
“A rotating turret will present a significant technical accomplishment.”
“None of the other ‘bots will know what hit them.”
The idea of a shooter inspired my teammates, but I knew a simpler robot could score faster by dumping many balls simultaneously.
That night I struggled to decide if I should aggressively advocate for the more effective strategy. I dialed a few teammates and heard the excitement in their voices when they discussed the shooter. I paced endlessly and reflected on my experience with robotics, a passion I had pursued since joining Lego League in 5th grade. I had joined the Southwest Robotics Team during its rookie year in 2006. At the beginning of my sophomore year, when I became the head captain, we had only six members including myself. Now we had 26 members and a network of mentors and sponsors; we had raised over $45,000. I had worked with the larger FIRST community to test a new control system and taught programming seminars for FIRST members at Washburn High and the University of Minnesota. To interest potential young inventors, I had organized demonstrations at public high schools and The Bakken Museum of Electricity and Life. FIRST Robotics meant more to me than a competition; it brought together and inspired people to produce innovation.
Perhaps I could have prolonged discussions, swayed others to my opinion, and my team would have reluctantly built a simple, effective robot. But after weighing the relative merits of process and product and the crucial importance of team dynamics, I embraced the strategy that would generate enthusiasm on the team, wow the crowd, and score sporadically.
That build season we had more fun than ever before. We challenged ourselves to find innovative design solutions to the inherent complexities of lofty strategy. I led the programming effort to become one of a handful of teams able to autonomously track the moving targets and differentiate between friend and foe using the onboard camera. The robot looked magnificent; everyone competed for the chance to drive it. We were proud of our accomplishment.
At the North Star Regional, our members rushed around the pits, offering technical support to less experienced teams and telling everyone about our robot. The two-person drive team struggled to control our robot’s many spinning sprockets and whirring wheels. Although simple ball dumpers outscored us and advanced to Nationals, my decision to look at the bigger picture instead of game details unified our team, and everyone moved forward with a better understanding of strategy for future years. At the awards ceremony the announcer read, “The judging panel may encounter a team whose unique efforts, performance, or dynamics merit recognition, yet doesn’t fit into any of the existing categories . . . [The Judge’s Award goes to Southwest Robotics] for their exceptionally strong system design and true team spirit with a positive refreshing attitude.”
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