Robohawks ready for regionals

At competitions where L.C. Bird High School’s Robohawks are in play, the fans come out fired up and in face paint. It’s crazy, fun, exhausting and hectic, one participant said, but it’s not football, baseball or basketball.

It’s FIRST Robotics, “the varsity sport of the mind,” said Nancy Hoover, coordinator of the Governor’s Academy for Engineering at L.C. Bird.

“As someone not being on a team, it’s a little overwhelming,” junior Erica Bennett said last week. “Then, when you join a team, you realize what it’s all about.”

Erica is in her first year as a member of the Robohawks, FIRST Team 346. Numbers are assigned to FIRST teams in the order that they form, and there are now something like 3,000 teams, Erica said; the Robohawks’ number is relatively low and show’s the team’s age.

“We’re a really old team, and we’ve got a lot going for us,” Erica said. Along with its history, the team, which has about 30 members, has the support of a mentor and faculty advisers Hoover and Steve Wagner.

FIRST – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology – was founded by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, in 1989, according to FIRST’s Web site. The nonprofit organization’s offers several robotics programs, but its FIRST Robotics Competition, in which the Robohawks compete, has become an international phenomenon, with high schools around the world sending teams to competitions.

Every year, Erica said, Kamen and others “sit down and think up a task for all the teams to do.” This year, the teams had to design and build a robot that could kick a soccer ball into a goal and avoid obstacles, she said.

“Our robot was pretty successful,” she said. At a recent competition of 59 teams in Washington, D.C., the Robohawks, along with the two teams that completed the alliance, finished in second place, she said. Later this month, the team will compete in the Virginia Regional competition at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center.

Yet, Hoover said, the experience is about much, much more than just building a robot. The team’s members work on smaller internal teams, such as the human resources, safety training and spirit teams, she said. Another goal, Erica said, is to “get kids exposed to ‘gracious professionalism,’” which, according to FIRST’s Web site, is part of the organization’s ethos.

“It’s a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community,” the site says.

At the competitions, team members can have a variety of jobs. Someone manages the pit area, where the robot goes between matches, some members drive the robot and another serves as the human player in the match, Hoover said. Some members watch the other matches, taking detailed notes on what each robot can do, she said; those notes then go to the strategy team.

“No one is above doing the grunt work for the team,” Hoover said.

“Everyone gets an opportunity to do everything,” Erica said. Participating is time consuming, she said, since the team has only six weeks to build its robot and ship it to the competition, but it’s worth it.

“I love it,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity.”

But, participating is an expensive proposition – in a lean year, the team’s budget is $13,000 or $14,000, Hoover said. The team doesn’t receive funding from the school system, and students are charged a nominal $25 fee to participate, which covers the cost of their team T-shirt, Hoover said. Sponsorships are critical, she said.

Another fundraising avenue is the E-Cycle program, she said, which FIRST Robotics is currently piloting in Virginia. The program offers a way for consumers to recycle old, broken, outdated or unused electronic devices, such as laptops, GPS devices, old or scratched DVDs or CDs, cameras, game consoles, cell phones, etc.

Erica, who’s in charge of the team’s E-Cycle effort, said 2nd Solutions, a Richmond-based firm that will recycle the old electronics, is giving the team funding for every item turned in.

“It’s a win-win because we have the potential to get funds for our team, as well as essentially do a community service,” Hoover said. Collections were set to take place at Bird last weekend, and Erica said more collection dates may be forthcoming.

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