Robot Dreams

by Sally Ann Flecker


L–R: Matt Vipond, Brandon Alanskas, and Padon Rishell, members of the 4-H Force Robotics Club in Jefferson County at the 2012 First Robotics Championship in St. Louis, Missouri. PHOTO: WHITNEY CURTIS

There have been—and there will be more—moments to savor for the rookie Electrotechs, the 4-H Clarion/Venango robotics team. But this moment is not one of them.

It’s Thursday, the first day in the three-day-long FIRST Robotics regional competition. Forty-five teams have signed on, meaning there are upward of 1,000 teenagers milling around the capacious and cacophonous Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh. Some are mustered earnestly in the pits tweaking their machines. Others are clustered in the stands, cheering on the bots or taking notes as the practice matches proceed.

The 16 members of Team 3954 have spent six weeks learning, brainstorming, building, and fine-tuning. They’ve put everything they had—and even more they didn’t know they had—into this project. Now, after setting up their cramped 10-foot by 10-foot work area on the pit floor and uncrating their creation, it’s finally time for their first practice match.

Alex Caldwell, 17, and Drew Kralj, 15, the drivers, frantically push the joysticks this way and that. Greg Sherwin, 15, problem-solver extraordinaire, clicks away on the computer. Alas, from their pride and joy, their jewel, they get nothing. They watch as other teams’ robots scuttle around, pick up squishy foam basketballs, and try, without much success, to shoot them into the baskets. Theirs, though, just sits there, seemingly dead to the world.

When the refs blow the whistle at the end of the match, the team lifts Robot 3954 gingerly onto the cart, and rolls it back to the pit. Their heads are low; their shoulders are weary. No one is playing “Taps” just yet, but the disappointment is still crushing.


4-H Force (Team 4031) team members Padon Rishell and Matt Vipond work to control their robot on the floor in St. Louis. PHOTO: WHITNEY CURTIS


L–R: John Anderson and Alex Caldwell, members of the rookie Electrotechs, the 4-H robotics team from Clarion/Venango counties, work with their robot at the regional competition in Pittsburgh; photo courtesy of Jeff Swensen

L–R: John Anderson and Alex Caldwell, members of the rookie Electrotechs, the 4-H robotics team from Clarion/Venango counties, work with their robot at the regional competition in Pittsburgh. PHOTO: JEFF SWENSEN


Engaging Generation Xbox

The connection between 4-H and robotics might not be instantly apparent. “Robots aren’t warm and fuzzy, and you don’t sell them in a sale,” said Patty Anderson, Penn State extension educator for 4-H youth development and science curriculum.

But it doesn’t take Anderson long to make a case for robotics being an exciting way to introduce engineering to a generation that is hooked on computers, video games, and other forms of digital entertainment. “Our kids are in an environment where things are changing faster than ever because technology is taking us there,” she says. “They have no fear of technology,” she says. “They’re the ones embracing it. They’re the consumers that the apps are being driven for. And if they don’t get what they want, they make it.” In other words, their comfort level with technology primes the pump for an interest in engineering.

As a way to address what 4-H leaders see as a declining trend in the nation’s science, engineering, mathematics, and technology workforce, the organization has set its sights on engaging one million young people in science by the year 2013.

It has about a hundred fewer to go to meet that goal, thanks to the pilot program Anderson is directing in Pennsylvania where nine 4-H robotics clubs, including Team 3954’s Electrotechs, were rolled out this year to participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC).

“Communities are very curious about this,” said Anderson, who has set up clubs in Clarion, Venango, Armstrong, Jefferson, Westmoreland, Washington, Centre, Butler, and Franklin counties. “It’s been enlightening, I think, for people to see that 4-H is moving forward to things that can take kids into the next century and beyond in terms of career investment.” It’s a natural fit for Penn State Extension, she adds, where the University’s cutting-edge research in science and technology can be integrated into an inquiry-driven curriculum for youth.

The FRC season gets going shortly after the New Year. But some of the newly formed 4-H robotics clubs began meeting as early as November, beginning their journey into robotics engineering by playing around with Lego Mindstorms, kits with software and hardware for building and programming small robots.

This year’s much-anticipated FRC kickoff was held on January 7 at regional sites around the country, as well as in Canada, Mexico, and Israel. In Pittsburgh, the kickoff was hosted at Carnegie Mellon University, where teams had a chance to meet and mingle, take part in workshops, and pick up their kit of parts.

What an eye-opening experience,” says Brian Bowen, a PennDOT engineer working with Team 3954 whose nephew Christian had asked him to help out. There was nothing about Christian’s mild request to prepare Bowen for the standing-room-only crowd of youngsters, already chomping at the bit to get started on their robots and further primed by the live NASA-TV broadcast and webcast with a lineup of speakers including former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, political comedian Stephen Colbert, and of the Black Eyed Peas.

The kickoff was also the first time the teams learned what this year’s game would be. The challenge usually includes designing robots that can collect and defend things like tennis balls or soccer balls, air- or water-filled kickballs, inflatable inner tubes, pucks, and “floppies,” pillowlike objects encircled with a Velcro loop. The robots may have to throw, shoot, stack, hang, push, or even climb to score points.

“Rebound Rumble” is the 2012 challenge. Two alliances, designated red or blue (3954 will be part of the Red Alliance), of three teams each will compete against one another to shoot as many basketballs into hoops as they can in the allotted time. Hoops are lined up on either side of the court in a diamond shape with one high hoop, one low, and two in the middle. The higher the basket, the more points scored.

But there’s more to the game than shooting. The two sides of the court are separated by a four-inch barrier that requires some maneuverability for a robot to cross. The barrier is interrupted by three “bridges” that sit a foot off the ground. A robot can use the bridges to get to the other side, but to do that, it has to have some way to pull the bridge down so that it becomes a ramp it can drive up onto. A robot also can earn points for its alliance by balancing on the bridge—not as easy as it sounds.

For the next six weeks, each team is in a frantic race to strategize, brainstorm, build, program, and perfect a robot that can meet these challenges.

L–R: Electrotech team members Alex Caldwell, Greg Sherwin, Christian Peterson, and Drew Kralj; photo courtesy of Jeff Swensen

L–R:  Electrotech team members Alex Caldwell, Greg Sherwin, Christian Peterson, and Drew Kralj. PHOTO: JEFF SWENSEN


Building the Best Bot

Fast-forward six weeks to the regional competition. Electrotech’s first disheartening match turns out to be a mere failure to communicate. But Thursday is “fix-your-robot-day,” says the team’s safety captain, 14-year-old Libby Best, who came to the 4-H club with an interest in engineering, but has also discovered she liked setting up the website and has “had a blast” making give-away buttons that serve as PR for the team.

She and buddy Bryan Miller, 15, are up in the stands, taking in some of the practice matches that run one after the other all day. They remember that while they got no instructions for how to proceed once they had their starter boxes, they did get some advice. “Do something uncommon,” someone from an experienced team told them that day at the kickoff.

Team 3954 decided to follow that advice.

One night back in January, team captain Alex Caldwell remembers, “That’s when we decided we were going to play defense. A rookie team—it’s a little easier to play defense. You don’t have to worry about shooting.”

Within a couple of weeks, they had a rolling chassis, wired and put together.

The next step—bringing the robot to life—was a little harder. For that, they called on a programming whiz from the 4-H Centre County team, Fatal Error. Jason Terosky met a few members of the Electrotech team at Patty Anderson’s office in Clarion to help with programming. That’s one fine memory for Electrotech member Greg Sherwin, the moment when Jason pronounced the team’s robot “runnable.” Greg and his teammates took it out, giddy with excitement, and ran it up and down the streets.

The team still finds it amazing that Jason drove two hours each way from Centre County to Clarion on a Friday evening to work with them, asking for nothing more in return than a sandwich. But the Electrotechs were able to pay it forward by helping the 4-H team from the other side of Clarion, the Redneck Robotics, who came up a week and a half later. That team left not only with a “semi”-working robot but with the Electrotechs’ extra sidecar because its own sidecar was in bad shape. In the FIRST world, teams get rewarded for mentoring other teams, especially when they reach a hand out to rookies.

With the 3954 robot working at a basic level and a little time to spare before the “bag and tag” date when all work on the robot had to cease until the competition, Bowen led them in another brainstorming session. They had a rolling robot. Now they decided they wanted it to have an arm to push the bridge down and maybe even collect balls.

“Okay, you have a concept now,” said Bowen. “Build a prototype.”

And they did, using Legos. The real robot’s arm turns out to be just a bigger, upscale version.

That’s the thing, says Patty Anderson, whose youngest son, Sam, was one of the junior squad kids, the younger members of the club who didn’t meet the 14-year-old minimum age requirement for participating in this FRC event. “In terms of steering kids,” she said, “we are just trying to get their eyes open to more than their backyard, to see the world as a bigger picture, and light that passion for wanting to be involved in the bigger picture. That’s a big part of the 4-H design—being able to see themselves in the future.”

As the culmination of many months working closely together, the competition is eye-opening for Anderson. “They had to be a team the whole time,” she said. “They had to learn to communicate. When we debrief these groups, the interpersonal skills are what keep floating to the top on what they want to strengthen. That is pretty insightful for kids that age. That’s what’s exciting—watching their passion for learning. I think they could actually identify that at the end. They were so proud of themselves and what they accomplished.”

Padon Rishel and Brandon Alanskas work out programming issues with their robot; photo courtesy of Whitney Curtis

Padon Rishel and Brandon Alanskas work out programming issues with their robot. PHOTO: WHITNEY CURTIS


In It to Win It

The arm is the thing that is actually giving them nightmares at this very moment, though not through any flaw in design. It’s later in the day on Thursday. The robot is communicating. It’s just not getting much accomplished. In the first match of the afternoon, for instance, it was able to get the balls off the bridge and over to the Blue Alliance side to where its teammates could use them to shoot. But it wasn’t able to use its arm to push down the bridge and climb on for balancing points. 

Still Bowen counts the practice match as a success. “It moved around, got some balls. Now the team is trying to undo some of the code that multiplies the force so that the arm can push the bridge down.”

It will take more than that. Back at the local Grange Hall where they had worked during the build period, they had made a plywood bridge according to the specifications FIRST had given them. When they got out to the competition floor, they discovered the real bridges weigh a lot more and require more force. They’re not the only team with that problem. In fact, they’re the lucky ones. A couple other teams destroyed parts of their arms trying to get the bridge down.

Back at the pit nothing they try is working. So they all sit and stare at the robot as if it will suddenly reveal the answer to them. (In fairness, that is often how Greg does some of his most inspired problem solving.) Bowen finds it so tense that he flees to the upper tiers of the arena to watch the remaining matches.

Then another team stops by. The members talk about how they dealt with an arm malfunction the previous year, and that’s all it takes to reenergize everyone. For two hours, before everyone is ushered out for the night, they get the Sawzall going, cut off all the welds, and shorten up the arm to get more power in the motors.

The first two matches Friday morning are still disappointing—but, oddly enough, not disheartening. The motors get too hot and keep shutting the arm off. Another half-hour of fine-tuning, in which they reduce the weight of the arm from eight pounds to four, is all it takes to put the problem to rest. The team is finally ready for its moment in the sun.

It comes in their third match of the morning. The buzzer sounds and the robot starts . . . and then stops. It’s almost like it’s dancing. Starts. Stops. And that’s how it makes its way over to the bridge where it raises its arm and—glory hallelujah—tips the bridge down, drives up, and balances. There are 35 seconds left in the match, and the Electrotechs bask in each curt tick of the timer. At long last.

Their alliance goes on to lose that match. It’s not even close—28 to 11. But here’s what is so great: rookie team 3954 scored 10 of those 11 points with that simple—and oh-so-complex—balancing act.

In that one shiny moment, the Electrotechs ascend to sixth place in the rankings. It won’t last long. But long enough. Team 3954’s performance will be solid for the rest of the day. The robot will collect the balls and get them to its alliance mates or at least keep them out of the appendages of the other side. It’ll balance reliably on the bridge without falling off or sliding down the other way. It’ll even balance with a second robot for extra points. Other teams take notice. It turns out that 3954’s strategy of building a defensive robot is unusual—most of the other teams tried to build robots to shoot—which makes 3954 an interesting prospect. Indeed, when the top eight teams get to pick two teams each for their alliances for the quarterfinals on Saturday, the Electrotechs are chosen.

The students can see themselves in the future—even if it’s a future that’s only one day away. Drew is already figuring out how he’s going to get up high enough (no ladders allowed) to cut the net of the top hoop—a tradition for the winning alliance.

That’s a dream that doesn’t take place. Their Red Alliance doesn’t advance to the finals. And truth be told, no one’s hurting over it. The students are carrying away a prize that’s much bigger—an earned sense of accomplishment, a sense of meeting a problem head on and working together to solve it. They’re already talking about where they go from here. Alex, who will graduate and head off to Slippery Rock University, is planning to come back to help with the robot—whatever it will be—next year. Ask Drew about his experience with the 4-H robotics club, and he doesn’t have to pause to think about it. “It’s been life-changing,” he says. And if that isn’t a moment to savor, what is?