Team Titanium from Lee’s Summit West High School was feeling pretty confident after nine rounds in this year’s FIRST Robotics Regional Competition in Kansas City on Saturday afternoon.
With 20 sponsors backing the students and two mechanical engineers and a chemistry teacher as mentors, they had won all but one match and were among those favored to take it all heading into the finals at Hale Arena.
Cameron Lerch, a 16-year-old sophomore in his second year on Team Titanium, was pretty excited that the team was leading among the 64 competing. He gave up playing baseball for this. He didn’t have time for both.
Some days, robot building keeps him at school eight hours after classes.
“I love it,” Lerch said. “This has changed the way I talk. I’ve learned so much. It has changed my life.”
It’s also changed his travel plans. He and the rest of the Lee’s Summit West team won regional honors and an engineering award Saturday. They will be in St. Louis from April 25 to 28 for the FIRST Robotics Competition World Championships at the Edward Jones Dome.
But Cameron wasn’t the only person who said he had a life-changing experience Saturday.
Robotics competition has transformed Ruskin High School teacher Todd Barney, too.
Five years ago, Ruskin sent Barney to the regional competition to supervise Hickman Mills district students who had entered their first robot.
The problem was, their robot was still in its box, in pieces. No one had shown them the electronic and engineering design skills needed to put the thing together, to make it run.
This time, Barney brought 20 members of Team HERMES or, How Eagle Robotics Makes Extreme Stuff. And they’d brought a new robot, programmed to do everything required in this year’s “Rebound Rumble” challenge: roll around picking up basketballs, shooting them through a hoop and net, and balancing on a large lever, all in 2 minutes and 15 seconds.
Founded by inventor Dean Kamen, who introduced the iBOT Mobility System and the Segway Human Transporter, the robotics competition now is in its 21st year. It was created to inspire an appreciation of math, science and technology in students and their communities.
“These are really smart kids,” Barney said. “They just needed a break, a sport that exercises their mind.”
Barney never forgot that first year when a competing team helped Ruskin on the spot, in one day, assemble its robot. Ruskin competed but “we just had the chassis of a robot. It ran but didn’t do much else. It was embarrassing,” said Barney, who teaches Project Lead the Way engineering courses at Ruskin. “They had just sent me to babysit the kids that year. But I fell in love with the competition the minute I walked into the arena.”
On Saturday, the final day of the three-day event, Ruskin’s team was shooting a little better than 50-50 in the competition. Sponsored by Cerner Corp., Black & Veatch, Honeywell, Boeing and KC STEM Alliance, the team won six matches and lost five. The students were hoping to form an alliance with two other good teams and walk away one of the top winners, just as they did earlier this school year at a robotics event called Cow Town Throw Down.
All participating teams line up sponsors that help them afford the $5,000 basic robot kit and pay the additional $5,000 entry fee for the regional competition. Each of the more than 1,200 participants in the regional also have a shot at a share of $14 million in scholarships offered by universities and colleges.
On the makeshift court in Hale Arena, robots, some more elaborate than others because teams raise extra money to custom design them, battled it out. Students directed the robots to go for the three-, two- and one-point shots. Fans yelled for their team and held up signs as if they were at a big-time basketball competition. Some even came with painted faces.
Ryan Dewitt, a Blue Springs High School junior, used a joystick to remotely control the bot built by the Blue Springs United Robocats. The team ran into some problems in the early rounds. Ryan and his teammates spent every minute between matches tinkering with mechanisms and the computer program trying to get the bot to make repeated baskets. It just wasn’t their day.
But Ryan had fun.
“It’s like playing air simulator except you are on the ground,” he said. “The nerve-racking part comes when everyone’s yelling behind me to shoot and I just feel like I need to focus and get into the game.”