The FIRST Robotics team The Mechanical Mustangs of McLean School of Maryland (a high school, see www.mcleanschool.org) successfully advanced to the state championships after a competing at a Qualifier competition in Annapolis, MD on January 21st. For those that aren’t aware, FIRST (www.firstinspires.org) is a program to inspire young people in science and technology and to help them learn skills such as teamwork, leadership, and communication. They have four programs for all ages, K-12, and the Mechanical Mustangs are part of the First Tech Challenge (FTC) program for middle and high school aged students. FIRST is almost entirely volunteer driven, and my role is as a mentor for the team. On Saturday, January 21st, Maryland FIRST held one of eight ”Qualifier” competitions at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. Thirty (30) Teams from Maryland, New Jersey, West Virginia, and DC were represented. The Mustangs were one of six teams to advance.
I left early on Friday, January 20th to help the team prepare for the competition. After working on the robot into the wee hours of the morning, we entered Dahlgren Hall after 7AM and saw we were up for judging right away at 8AM. There are two paths to advancement for a team: one is to win or be runner up in this year’s game (each year the game changes), and the other is to earn specific awards from a panel of judges. This year we went for the total package and tried to do reasonably well in both areas to increase our chances of advancement. The team had been rehearsing their presentation for the judges for weeks and when the time came, they nailed it. The judges were very impressed and peppered the students with questions, which they answered well. We then had to get through various inspections, perform calibrations, and run tests in the practice field.
Each game consists of a thirty-second autonomous period and a two-minute driver-controlled period, of which the last thirty seconds is called the end game. Our strategy was to score as many points as possible, as reliably as possible, during the autonomous period. While we had tested the robot extensively at the school, this was the first time it would be tested under competition conditions, so I was holding my breath at the start of each match. But remarkably, our autonomous was the most reliable in the entire competition, and the only time it had trouble was due to setup mistakes or interference from another robot (which is against the rules). We even saw one of the judges recording our autonomous runs. At the end of five matches, we were ranked third and moved on to the quarterfinals.
During the quarterfinals, our alliance partner’s robot failed and we were outnumbered 2-1, so we lost the match and were eliminated (but not by much, the final score was 93 to 105). But, during the awards ceremony, the team won the Connect Award, which is awarded to the team that most connects with their local STEM community. During the fall, we invited a program manager from NASA come to the school and give a talk on SCRUM, and then as a team, we followed a simplified version of the SCRUM method. This was unique and impressed the judges enough to grant us the award. Because the Connect Award is high on FIRST’s award ranking scale, it enabled us to advance to the State Championships in Emmitsburg MD, which was held on February 12th. While we did not advance to the next level, it was a tremendous experience for everybody, and the students are enthusiastic about competing next year!