Robotics Gears Up For Class, Club, and Competition

March 5, 2013 by  

As TJ’s Robotics classes compete in the First Tech Challenge (FTC), the club finishes up their robot for the First Robotics Challenge (FRC) Ultimate Ascent.

Students and mentors (from left: Stacey Fornstrom, Janie Eslinger, Mohamed Tambal, and Erich Deutch) work on their robot disc launcher.

Students and mentors (from left: Stacey Fornstrom, Janie Eslinger, Mohamed Tambal, and Erich Deutch) work on their robot disc launcher.

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Imagine a room full of dedicated students, all working together to create a robot that performs a certain function.

That’s a regular day in one of TJ’s brand new Robotics classes. This class is a new offer, brought to us by the already intriguing and inclusive program, the Center for Communication and Technology Magnet (CCTM). This may be its first year, but Robotics is already shaping up to be the fifth major offered by the CCTM next year. TJ’s CCTM director, Newspaper, Video Intern, and now Robotics teacher Matthew Spampinato spoke highly of this new addition to the CCTM. “When I walked through the doors of Magnus Arena last April, it really changed everything for me,” said Spampinato about his visit to a First Robotics competition last year, which was being coached by fellow teachers Stacey Fornstrom and Matthew Santambrogio.

Robotics has been a club offered by TJ for nearly three years, and still has a club today. The difference between the two is that the robotics class is offered for all age groups (even freshmen) as an introduction to the world of robotics. Students began the year by learning the basics of robotics and working with Lego Mindstorm robots (the same ones used in the Intro to CCTM class). After that, they advanced to Tetrix (also provided by the Lego company), with which they are currently still working. Tetrix offers more powerful motors and a metal infrastructure with which to work. “That unit culminates in a competition called the First Tech Challenge,” said Spampinato. This year the FTC required students to build a Tetrix based robot with the ability to transfer rings from one stand onto another. Details of the challenge can be seen at usfirst.org/roboticsprograms/ftc.

Robotics students continue working together to design new robots. Photo courtesy of Chris

Robotics students continue working together to design new robots. Photo courtesy of Chris Tuska

The competition, held last Saturday, went very smoothly considering that this was TJ’s first year competing in it. With 52 students and eight teams, TJ was well represented. Out of 36 teams, TJ’s teams secured eighth, 11th, and 12th place in this year’s FTC. This was a fantastic turnout for the TJ Robotics class’s first FTC, which satisfies Spampinato greatly. “I was really proud of our teams and TJ,” said Spampinato.

Also in attendance at the FTC competition, in addition to Spampinato and Fornstrom, were Robotics Teachers Eileen Adair and Ivory Allen. “I enjoyed the competitiveness they [the students] had, because compared to other classes, we were like the underdogs, but that didn’t stop us,” said Allen.

Adair was also pleased with the students and their performance. “I am extremely proud of the TJ Robotics students. As a first year program, we had a very steep learning curve and many logistics to figure out with so many teams representing the TJ community. We had many students involved, and it was a meaningful experience for all.”  She adds her enthusiasm for events to come, saying, “I am overwhelmed and excited about how much ground we covered this year.  I am honored to be a part of such a cool new offering at TJ. Robotics: it’s the wave of the future!”

The Robotics club is for kids who want to take it to the next level. Started in 2010 (by Stacey Fornstrom and Nicholas Tussing), the club is comprised of mostly seniors and juniors (and one freshman), and is building with real robotics kits provided by the FRC Corporation. This particular FRC, called Ultimate Ascent, has robots shooting disks through goals for points, and ends with a pyramid climb for a final chance to raise team scores.  The club met after schools on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays and is spearheaded by Robotics co-presidents Colin Suzuki and Shehab Ahmed. Both have built separate robots with their respective teams, though they did collaborate on some of the efforts.  Suzuki has been a part of the Robotics club for two years, and eagerly anticipates the competition this April. “I liked taking things apart, which was like my main thing,” recalled Suzuki.

Ahmed is excited for this year’s competition and spoke to the journal briefly about some of the problems that arise when building robots. “During third period, it took us all third period to get this right. We took it apart, put it back together, and realized we were missing something. Then we took it apart and put it back together again,” chuckled Ahmed.

Working with the classes and the club can be a daunting process to manage, but Suzuki seems to handle it with relative ease. However, he does admit to there being some things that still give him trouble in robotics. Aside from the constant maintenance work, and complex programming, Suzuki admits that getting things to work exactly how he wants them to is probably the hardest aspect of robotics. A specific example of this was the FRC last year. The club members had to design a robot that could scoop up balls and lower a bridge, but due to construction problems, TJ’s team didn’t fair so well. “What ended up happening is that there was hardly any strength in the scoop, and trying to pick up balls in that short amount of time was extremely hard,” said Suzuki. Last year, TJ’s robot Spartanica Robotica, finished in the 30 range of about 50 teams.

Suzuki believes that the new students in the Robotics classes discovered what they are really capable of while competing in the FTC on February 23 at Regis University. “If the kids just get involved as much as I did [last year], they’ll come out and be amazed and knowledgeable,” said Suzuki, who also knows that TJ’s two club teams will be facing some hefty competition in this year’s FRC, but he remains confident nonetheless. “You have some teams that have been there every single year, that know everything possible about robots, and can throw the basic robot together in a day and then build off of that to make it ten times better,” exclaimed Suzuki.

Formstrom is still a major part of the club, in addition to Spampinato and Matthew Santambrogio. Formstom is also relatively confident about this year’s teams performing well in the FRC, and believes that this years robots could turn out really great. “Now, can we make a hopper that loads it [flying disks] into the shooter that’s as good as the shooter? If that part is a good as the shooter, I think we’ll do really well,” said Fornstom.

Santambrogio is also a big part of the club. He finds robotics somewhat like the mechanical work he does with cars and motorcycles, only harder. “Motorcycles are much simpler and…free forming, I guess, like you have the overall goal, its just the motorcycle and within that you have so much liberty and freedom, ” said Santambrogio.   

Spampinato believes that the robotics club is comparable to a sports team in almost every way. He equates the meetings to practices, the teachers to team coaches, and Suzuki and Ahmed to team captains. “We [the teachers] give them instruction on how to put robots together, with the goal and objective of the robot and we let them do it, but we guide them.” The instructors help them out as much as they can, but this is a mostly student driven venture. “The coach in football doesn’t go out, take the snap, and throw the pass, and the same is true for us…we guide, the students build.”

The FRC is taking place over the three-day period of April 4-6. Work on the robot stopped February 16, and it was set aside for the April competition. Next year, a second level robotics class will become part of the CCTM, aptly named Robotics 2. Students who wish to pursue robotics further should definitely consider taking this class (after Robotics 1 of course). Kids in this class will build their own robots from scratch, and even partially fund them themselves. Whatever function they want their robot to serve, they can make it. “So what we hope for all our students involved is that they become extremely stimulated by the notion of building a robot. We hope it promotes students to look at careers in mechanical engineering, and we hope kids just have fun with it,” said Spampinato. Look forward to more coverage of the FRC, and the robotics classes and club in the months to come.