This past fall I’ve become involved with my daughters’ FIRST FTC (FIRST Tech Challenge) Robotics team. For the past three years, it was Emily and Darrell’s “thing” and I didn’t really do much more than hound my husband to make sure he read his emails from the coach. This year, the woman who had been the coach/Girl Scout liaison in the past was planning to move out of state, so I agreed to be the person to help coordinate our team, the Nuclear Unicorn Girl Assemblers (NUGAs for short). If you’ve read my posts about coaching running or leading Girl Scout troops, you may begin to see a pattern in my acceptance to lead things that I have no experience in. Robotics is no exception. Thank goodness that we have involved parents (including my husband), who know the ins and outs of building and programming robots. I jokingly say that I can fire off a pretty good email now and then.
Let me tell you about these girls—in a word, “awesome”. They are all Girl Scouts from five different troops in 7th – 11th grades. NUGA has girls from public, private and homeschool environments – 10 girls in all. What I enjoy most about these girls, besides admiring just how very smart they are, is that they are just fun people to be around. We spend Sunday evenings hammering out details of how our robot would best complete its assigned challenge. Each year there’s a different game field the robots compete on, with a different challenge. You can see it in action at FIRST’s website at http://www.usfirst.org/roboticsprograms/ftc, but to put it simply, the robot basically needs to be able to put two different sized whiffle balls into “beakers” (clear tubes on rollers). There are three separate, timed parts to the run in the competition—Autonomous, Driver and End Game, and teams earn points in each of these segments. As a team, part of the design process is coming up with a strategy to earn the most points during the judge competitions. The girls have to learn how to design, wire and logically plan to efficiently create programs and designs that would benefit our strategy in the competition.
What’s really interesting to see with these girls is how they all have special, individual talents that they contribute to our team. While they all share and work on design ideas, some of the girls work on building the robot using Tetrix. Others program in LabView by National Instruments and download it into our Lego Mindstorm Brick to control the robot. The team has to maintain an Engineering Notebook (another part of the Challenge), and build relationships with other teams. Especially because we are sponsored by Girl Scouts, we participate in a lot of outreach efforts by mentoring younger teams and getting girls excited about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The girls have a blog they post to—www.NUGAteam.tumblr.com to share what they’ve been doing. Not all of it is relevant to the robot and the challenge, but they seem to enjoy having a forum to post their interviews with one another.
Sunday night we worked on writing a 300-word essay to submit to win a 3D Printer from EKOCYCLE, who is giving away 1,600 3D printers to FIRST teams this year. The girls had a lot of good things to include and I was impressed with their ability to articulate what they needed for their robot that they thought the 3D printer could help them make.
The NUGAs, who just four years ago were mostly strangers, have become friends. In fact, one of the biggest obstacles we face on Sunday evenings is getting the girls to focus on the task at hand instead of socializing with one another. But slowly our plan is coming together. We hope to be participating in a newly formed practice league in our area soon and getting our robot out on the field to see him in action.
If you are ever asked to help out with a robotics team, I’d advise you to accept, even if, like me, you haven’t a clue as to how to program a robot. There are a ton of resources available, and the FIRST league is definitely first-class in gracious professionalism, a core value it promotes. Robotics is much more than just kids building and programming a robot. When you see these kids in action, you get the feeling there’s a lot of hope out there with kids like these building the future.