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Fans chanting team cheers, outrageous costumes, loops and arrays, and late nights may not be the first things that come to mind when you hear the word robotics. Trust me, when my brother and science teacher approached me to join the school robotics team, those weren’t the first things that came to my mind either. When I, admittedly reluctantly, joined the robotics team my sophomore year of high school, I didn’t exactly know what to expect. Though unsure, the more I learned about robotics and the competition world, the more I grew to like it. While every experience was unexpected and part of the learning curve, I think my literacy of robotics can be best described by the first team meeting, my first time going to a kickoff event, my first programming experience, and the competitions.
The best part of the robotics team that I was on was not only was I new to the world of robotics, but so was our entire team. My involvement with robotics began also as a new FIRST Robotics team was forming at my school. With an absence of teachers or students that knew much about FIRST Robotics, we were all very unsure on at our first meeting. I remember my science teacher sitting us all down with a kit of parts that was provided by FIRST and saying, “So we have six weeks to turn this box of parts into a robot to compete.” As you may expect, this statement was met with many blank stares and dumbfounded looks. We knew absolutely nothing about what robotics or the FIRST Robotics program was, but we were about to find out.
Since I was an underclassman and I’d never really dabbled much in building or programming, my first year on the robotics team I mostly coasted by. I’d show up to build sessions, but didn’t fully commit to attending the weekend competitions. Consequently, I didn’t really fully understand the game until the following year when I attended a local FIRST Robotics kickoff event with my team. The main purpose of these events was to unveil the game for the year and kick off the building season. FIRST Robotics coordinators would host all of the local teams in an auditorium at a nearby university and play the official game reveal video, which explained the game that would be played at competitions that we’d build robots to compete in. Each year was a new game with new rules. Walking into the auditorium for my first kick off, I felt a buzz of excitement in the air and the room was filled with chatter. Many introductory videos were projected onto a screen as the FIRST Robotics coordinators started to get everyone fired up. Since it was my first kickoff, I wasn’t sure of what was to come, but the feeling of anticipation in the air and the fact that we were all gathered here as a group for a shared passion of robotics began to build my own excitement. Cheers sounded as the game reveal video took over the screen and as soon as it was over, teams were hurriedly filing out of the auditorium to receive their kit of parts and begin their building. Though I’d already had one season under my belt, this moment opened my eyes to what this whole FIRST Robotics thing was about. For the first time, as we’d all rallied together for the purpose of figuring out the new game for the year, I’d felt as if I was becoming a part of this community.
With no experience or prior knowledge of robotics, I didn’t expect to be thrust into programming first thing in my second season. However, since the programmer from the first year had graduated, our team was in need of a programmer and I somehow ended up with the job. The program for the robot essentially is the brains behind the physical structure that allows it to move around and function. The program can receive commands from a controller, process those commands, and make the robot execute it. Using a visual programming language called LabView, I learned how to program the robot. Hours upon hours were spent looking up tutorials on how to write a program for the robot. While I still am not, by any means an expert in programming, somehow these scattered bits of knowledge that I collected were put together into one cohesive program that would hopefully power the robot. The time came to test the robot with the newly written program and everyone stood on edge as I flipped the program to on. Tense air filled the room with everyone awaiting the outcome of my past few weeks work. I pushed the robots control stick forward precariously and nearly cried in relief when I saw the robot move with it. At times I thought I’d never understand the insider language of robotics, let alone programming. In this moment, for me, it felt like I was actually starting to contribute something substantial to the team.
Weeks passed and the time came when we had to compete with our fully finished robot. The competition world of FIRST Robotics is something that completely blew me away when I attended my first competition. I had no idea what to expect and when I first walked into the university gym where the competition was being held, I was surprised with what I was met with. A full game arena was constructed in the center of the room with spectator bleachers on both sides of it. Loud music and chants filled the room as teams cheered on their robots and drive team from the stands. A temporary wall stood behind the bleachers, blocking off a section for the pit area where each team had an area to work on their robot between rounds. Different rounds of the game were played all day with each team playing multiple rounds throughout the day. In each round of the game, teams would earn points and the point totals at the end of the preliminary rounds determined which teams would be advancing to the finals. Each team had a drive team that were the ones who actually drove the robot in the competitions. In each preliminary round of the game, your team was randomly scheduled to compete on the same alliance with two other teams.
There were two alliances per each game and you would work together with the other teams in your alliance to win the match. Though my first experience seeing and learning about the competition world of first robotics was surely memorable, it was actually one of the later competitions that really made its mark on me.Since I had been the programmer for the robot and knew its functions, my team decided that it would be a good idea for me to be a part of the drive team controlling the robot in the competitions. As the season passed and with numerous matches under our belt, we’d somehow managed to advance to the finals in a competition. Since the stakes were high in the finals, I worked with an alliance member to create a new program that would allow the robot to do more things to earn our alliance more points. Nervous was an understatement for how I was feeling about this match. The competition was high energy and I was surprised by the competitive nature of the finals. Everyone else seemed so prepared and experienced and though I’d been a part of the drive team in previous matches, in the finals I felt as though I had no idea what to do. However, time passed quickly and before I knew it, I was setting up my controls in the little box on the side of the game field. The timer counted down to the start of the game where the robots first entered a 15 second autonomous period in which the robots moved on their own from a pre-made program while the drive team couldn’t touch the controls. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. And the robots were off. Disappointment and guilt spread through me as I watched our robot stand still.
The program that I had freshly redone to earn our team more points didn’t even work at all. While I watched helplessly, I also noticed a robot from the other alliance on the opposite side of the field barreling across the field straight at us. “I don’t think that robot’s going to stop,” my drive team partner commented frantically and less than a second later, the robot had smashed into our station, knocking our controls off of the table and disconnecting everything. As my drive team partner and I scrambled to pick everything up and get everything reconnected before the human operated portion of the game began, I could only think about how I’d lost the game for the whole alliance. Luckily we were able to reconnect everything and play for the human operated portion of the game, but it wasn’t enough to secure the win. I thought for sure that I’d failed my team and didn’t belong on the FIRST Robotics team, but it was quite the opposite. After the competition, my team wasn’t upset as I’d imagined them to be, but rather accepting and forgiving of my mistake. Additionally, one of my alliance members helped explain to me what went wrong in the program and walked me through fixing it for future matches. Though it was probably my worst match in my time on the robotics team, I had never felt more accepted and embraced by this community of people.Overall, robotics was a journey for me full of ups and downs. From meetings, to kickoffs, to late nights programming and stressful competitions, this experience holds many memories for me. Although I don’t remember much about the programming or technical aspects of robotics, I took away so much more from my experience. Being a part of robotics helped me realize my passion for technology and science, along with teaching me what it meant to be a part of a team and a community. Starting off with no prior knowledge of robotics whatsoever and ending with having programmed a fully functioning robot not only improved my literacy of robotics, but also was truly an example to me of how far hardwork and dedication can go. From the first time I’d attended a kickoff to driving the robot in competitions, I’d slowly but surely been integrated into this community of FIRST Robotics as we all came together for a shared passion of science, technology, and robotics. Though I’m no longer a member of a FIRST Robotics team, I still hope to hold a part in the community as a volunteer and I am proud to be an alumni of the program.
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