Herding Cats

This academic year I have been a coach for a First Tech Challenge (FTC) Team; as the father of a high school student, I stepped in to fill a void – and to spend time with my son

The Mighty Team 10565

I am one of two coaches – Jan is another parent (and a now-retired professor) who has the time and the motivation to help. We’re supported by awesome volunteers. Club manager, Kari, who handles much of the back-end coordination that impacts all four teams, like registration and finances. And true specialists, our technical mentors, who volunteer their time and skills to help the kids with things that range from CAD to programming to machining and building.

Jan and I? We herd the cats. She and I do everything else that is needed – from rides to paperwork to phone calls to rosters. We answer questions, poke and prod. Being a coach meant joining a team of adults that make this happen. 

Great opportunities to talk about the engineering process

As coaches, we start the new year generating knowledge. Some of it is about the FTC challenge itself, since it changes every year. Some of it is about the specifics of the rules – they also change every year. But some of it is invariably about the engineering and design process.

I defer to our technical experts who live, breath, and eat this process every day. They gladly come in and translate the process into simple, easy to understand concepts, terms and language. It’s a review for returning students and an introduction for new kids.

Jan and I took the opportunity at the beginning of the year to lead the team through several rounds of the design process. We focused on the team identifying key requirements for the robot design by phase before they even laid hands on pieces. Team 10565 had two returning members – the rest were new students, mostly freshmen, and we knew this would be important both in giving them goals for their build but also in modeling success they could replicate later.

Jaren getting his build on

Great opportunities to not practice the engineering process.

Team 10565 did not use the engineering and design process much. Jan and I had many laughs about this, and the technical mentors would shake their heads and cover their eyes. The kids were building in accordance with their original designs, but they weren’t evaluating and redesigning based on identified needs for change.

And that was fine. Jan and I had some heart-to-hearts about this. This was our first (and potentially only) year coaching, and while we could bring up the topic of the design process, forcing it would clearly be counterproductive. It wasn’t our robot, it wasn’t our design, it wasn’t ours to fail – it was theirs. We worked with the mentors – who moved between all four teams – discussing what was happening and our concerns, what could be done or what should be done, and even at times how to indirectly influence things.

But our team liked to reinforce failure. They would take a bad design element and keep adding on to it, trying to polish it and polish it, with the hopes that maybe something it’d work out. Why? Because using the engineering and design process is work. Well, it sounds like work. Doing it right is work. It’s super easy if you don’t do it.

And that was our team this year. And that was OK.

The robots? Way cool.

Our robots were incredible anyway. The challenge this year called for figuring out ways to launch over-sized wiffle-balls, lift giant yoga balls up and place them into specific positions, and press buttons on beacons. The bots had to do some of these tasks autonomously. When I was their age, I was throwing rocks at cans, autonomously.

We put no limits on the students. As I mentioned, almost all of the kids of Team 10565 were new to the robotics program, and most had no or little experience with tools and/or power tools. Time to learn. We encouraged them to translate their design ideas into reality through material considerations as well as the use of the rights tools and safety measures.

Our team struggled with throwing the over-sized wiffle-balls. They designed and built seven different mechanisms to address this specific task. Seven. After the competition had ended, they continued to work on it – they’re on version nine as I write this.

The autonomous capabilities of their robot was head and shoulders above that of nearly every other robot they encountered. In the initial design process, the kids had specified autonomous movement as being a key and critical capability, because of how they saw it impacting gameplay. They identified this, and they decided this. And when it came time for the tournaments they were right. They were absolutely right.

Emmett, our team mascot

Is it a club? Is it a class? Is it a sport? Is it a competition?

Team 10565 advanced all the way to the Super-Qualifier Tournament – one of three Wilson High School teams to do so. One other team advanced to the FTC Oregon State Championship, and one advanced to the Western U.S. Super Regional Championship – finishing as one of the top 3% of the FTC robotics teams in the country.

Is that what we’re about?

No. Our program is most definitely a club activity. Wilson only began to offer a “robotics” class this year, but it’s not connected to the club robotics program. Ours is a serious and inclusive program, but it’s a club – a Smash Bros game might break out. The kids vote with their feet. They decide every week if they still want to be involved with their team, and the teams are entirely self-funded through fund-raising efforts.

As a coach? I can nurture that. I vote with my feet every week, too. I roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty. I, for one, welcome our robot overlords.

Art La Flamme is a former Army officer who spent 25 years working in intelligence. He currently teaches intelligence and security studies at Angelo State University, emphasizing tech not just for spying but for research and collaboration.  Follow him on twitter at @artlaflamme or artlaflamme.com


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