Robotics treads through 2015 season


photo by Leah Harper

Members of the Mechromancers tend to their robot while a judge observes.

A game of hectic, mid-game decisions where victory is dependent on STEM skills, a field of science, technology, engineering and/or math, characterizes robotics, a competitive field where two school-based teams excelled.

Over the past year, the robotics club has ascended from obscure school activity to nationally recognized group due to not only the dedication of the members but the guidance of media director Po Dickison, AP Computer Science teacher Stefan Ibarguen, and UCF’s Innovation Lab Director Don Harper. Contributing to their satisfaction with a successful year is both a slew of awards, most recently at a world championship in Missouri, and participation in showcasing STEM opportunities.

The two teams in the robotics program are team 4717, the Mechromancers, and team 4227, Metal Morphosis. Don Harper has offered his mentorship to the teams for the past 5 years and intends to continue and provide support with access to the TI Innovation Lab at UCF. Although they receive the same tutelage, each is a self-contained group organized by their respective team leader.

Junior Stephen McCreight leads the Mechromancers while senior Chanh Nguyen is the leader of Metal Morphosis. Both have been involved with the program since their freshmen years.

“As team leader, I try to bring a lot of people together to accomplish a single goal,” Nguyen said. “It can sometimes get stressful because of how reliant we are on members who come and go pretty often.”

Each team is 15 members strong, with every member having a specific role.

“Every member of the team has to contribute something,” Dickison said. “Without someone organizing videos or someone programming the robot, and documenting everything in the engineering notebook, we would have never made it as far as we did.”

In San Antonio, Texas, the Mechromancers represented the club in a super-regional tournament, where they advanced to the semifinals. There, they won the Inspire Award for achievements beyond the field and in outreach and personal projects. They also won the Innovate and Design Awards for their creative and unique approaches to the solve the challenge and robot design. This victory qualified them for a spot at the FIRST World Championship in Missouri.

The teams first gained recognition in a December competition when they set and held a world record for two weeks during an autonomous period, a 30 second period where the robot was coded and performed without manual guidance, as well as the driver controlled part of a match. Since then, they have been featured in the Orlando Sentinel and TI’s (Texas Instruments) National blog post, and referenced in Twitter posts by notable robotics proponents like FIRST, (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), and Modern Robotics, Inc.

“Robotics has become far more prominent this year, mainly because of our much better leadership and the more efficient ways in which we communicate,” junior communication assistant Amy Robinson said.

Boasting victories in local and national circuits, robotics’ most recent triumph came in the form of a successful run at the FIRST World Championship in which the Mechromancers competed. The competition took place at Union Station in St. Louis, Mo., where they faced 128 teams from across the country and world. Their schedule consisted of arrival on Wednesday and competitions for the next three days. While they ultimately did not place among the top 10, they led the competition for the first two days, and managed to finish 12th in the world.

“I didn’t feel the need to pressure the team to win at this tournament. It really was our first time and I wanted them to take in the experience and not just focus on winning,” Dickison said. “Sure, there were other first-timers, but most of the other teams were far more experienced than us. I felt like the team really earned their place at the World Championship.”

At the tournament, competing teams had two minutes to manually operate the robot and an additional 30 seconds to allow it to perform by itself from coding. The goal of the game, titled Res-Q by the FIRST judges who redefine the games each season, is to program the robot to pick up as many cubes and balls from the ground and place them in a basket atop a hill.

This game was played all throughout the season, as Metal Morphosis faced trials in accomplishing the task as well.

“While the challenge is not too hard, a stressful problem we sometimes faced were technical issues, like the battery going out, that could have easily been solved before the game,” Nguyen said.

The primary focus of the robotics program is to showcase the STEM industry, where students interested could find an occupation. Outreach events and the members’ devotion to the team off field were integral to their victory of the Innovate and Inspire awards earlier in San Antonio, both of which were the prerequisites for allowing them to progress to the World Championship. Among the activities they engaged in were presentations at the Orlando Science Center, a Barnes and Noble event, and helping local elementary schools jumpstart their Lego robotics programs.

“The outreach events were useful in helping my understanding of engineering and robotics, both of which I am still interested in,” Nicholas Injo, assistant team leader on the Mechromancers, said.

For the following season, the robotics program has planned a number of events to advocate their activity and STEM relation. Summer camps, presentations and school visits are all on their quota for upcoming outreach events. Concurrently, as they maintain their burgeoning presence in the local community, they are gearing up to make certain they secure another spot at the FIRST world championship next year.