A misconception students often hold about the Spartan Robotics Team is that members must possess technical skills to join.
Not so, said Wyn Schuh, a local parent who helps oversee the team of 38 Mountain View High School students.
“Many students have this idea that this is hard,” she said. “We don’t expect anyone to know anything going in. We teach them how to use the tools and how to design things and all the best practices to be successful.”
And the Spartan Robotics Team has a successful track record. The team went undefeated and won the Sacramento regional competition last month, securing a spot in the national FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Championship Competition in St. Louis April 23-26.
FIRST competitions invite teams to battle each other in a different challenge each year. The organization’s mission is “to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation and foster well-rounded life capabilities including self confidence, communication and leadership.”
At the local level, Schuh said there is a place for all types of students on the team. Each year brings an array of fresh tasks for students to master.
Students connect with local machine shops, corporate sponsors and mentors in engineering to obtain the resources and knowledge necessary to create their robot. At competitions, students scout other schools’ robots to determine which teams complement their machine best and then form an alliance that, when successful, can help them win the tournament. The FIRST model emphasizes being gracious competitors and promotes learning to work with others in groups.
“There are a lot of life skills involved in being a part of the team,” Schuh said. “It’s a lot of real-world experiences. We have budgets, management, difficulties and challenges. Students have to learn from what doesn’t work.”
Another benefit, according to Schuh, is that students walk away with self-confidence.
“These students have to take initiative,” she said. “There aren’t right answers (in the creation of the robot). You go to these competitions and no two robots solve the challenge in the same way. Different designs are all effective.”
Natalia Frumkin, vice president of the Spartan Robotics Club, said she enjoys the challenges she faces as part of the team. On one recent project, the team worked to create a safeguard to protect an electronic element sticking out of their robot.
“My friend Christina and I worked on this project, and we came up with four or five different prototypes before deducing a design,” Frumkin wrote in an email to the Town Crier. “Every time we made a design, we’d get feedback and redesign again. This challenge of making the perfect encoder guard was just one of the small additions to our robot. Yet, a huge amount of effort, analysis and thought went into its design. I believe this is what sets robotics apart from every other extracurricular.”
Frumkin devotes many hours to robotics, often staying up past midnight in the lab to get the robot in running shape for competitions and sometimes spending 25 hours a week during the design period.
“I came into robotics not knowing how to use a hammer or design anything other than a stick and marshmallow tower,” she said. “Now I know how to use computer-aided design to prototype design and structures in a 3-D space on the computer and then use that model to make precise and useful parts.”
The hard work and problem solving that go into the robot design are put to the test during robotic competitions.
“The creator of FIRST said he really wanted to celebrate technology in our society the way people celebrate sports,” said Schuh, emphasizing the competitive aspect of robotics.
To see the Spartan Robotics Club in action, local residents are invited to attend the Silicon Valley regional competition 9-5 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the San Jose State University Event Center, 1 Washington Square in downtown San Jose. Admission is free and open to the public.
This year’s game, AERIAL ASSIST, is played by two alliances of three teams each. The alliances’ robots compete with a 24-inch exercise ball, trying to score as many goals as possible during a 2.5-minute match. Robots earn additional points by working together to score goals and by throwing and catching balls over a truss suspended approximately 5 feet above the floor as they move the ball down the field. The competition requires both strategy and defense.
In the qualifying matches, three teams are randomly assigned to compete against three other teams, so there is both cooperation and competition involved. Each round of games involves a different mix of teams.
In addition to Mountain View High, among the 60 teams competing are clubs from Los Altos High, Gunn High, Palo Alto High and Castilleja School. A group of local Girl Scouts is also scheduled to compete.
For more information, visit spartanrobotics.org.