Aerospace Scores with Robotics Team

FIRST you get them excited about robots. Then they study science… and maybe even come to work at Aerospace.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition is an international program in which teams of high school students work with mentors to design and build a robot that will then compete against other robots.

A group of Aerospace employees volunteered as mentors for several teams competing in the Los Angeles Regional competition March 24 to 26 at the Long Beach Arena. One of the teams placed seventh out of 63; more importantly, the mentors encouraged dozens of students in their pursuit of an education that included science and technology.

“This team has changed lives,” said Scott McLean, a senior project engineer in Systems Planning and Engineering. “We’ve had astronauts come and talk to our team and tell them that there’s absolutely no reason why they can’t help build future rockets or vehicles to go to Mars. I’ve watched students go from C averages to B averages.”

This year Aerospace sponsored teams from Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles and Orcutt Academy outside of Vandenberg AFB. Each team received jumpsuits with the Aerospace logo, help with the registration fee, and of course, the wealth of experience from Aerospace engineers.

Tim Wright, a senior MTS in the Engineering and Technology Group, headed up the Crenshaw High volunteers, while McLean helped Orcutt Academy start its robotics program this year. Two other employees also volunteered with yet another school, King Drew Magnet High School in Los Angeles.

Each year the game for the competition is different, and the teams are given the parameters a mere six weeks before they need to complete their robot.

This year’s game, called LOGO MOTION™, involved circles, triangles, and squares. During each two-minute match, robots had to take the inflated plastic shapes and hang them on pegs on the wall. The higher the shapes were hung, the more points were awarded.

If the shapes were hung in the configuration of the FIRST logo (a horizontal line of triangle-circle-square; see example), the points for those shapes were doubled.

Wright explained how the Crenshaw robot handled this challenge.

“We designed a forklift-type system for raising and lowering our arm, with a pneumatic actuator to allow us to reach to the floor and a mechanical claw for gripping the shapes,” he said.

At the end of the match, robots had a chance to release “minibots,” which then raced to the top of poles on the playing field. Bonus points were awarded to the fastest minibots.

McLean said the Orcutt minibot was very reliable and helped them score points.

“The minibot was a “V” design that pinched down on the pole using four wheels that reverse rolled to climb the pole,” he said.

Orcutt actually did very well in the competition. The charter school is new, only three years old, and with less than 400 students. This was the first year Orcutt has participated in FIRST Robotics, but they didn’t let that slow them down.
They placed seventh out of 63 teams, and also picked up two of three awards that FIRST gives to first-year teams. The Highest Rookie Seed Award goes to the first-year team that ranks highest in the qualifying rounds. The Rookie Inspiration Award is “for outstanding effort as a FIRST team in community outreach and recruiting students to engineering.”

“We got phenomenal feedback from the judges and the majority of the very strong teams,” McLean said.

Although they did well in the competition, McLean pointed out it’s not all about winning.

“The truly great moments for me … weren’t about how well we seeded but the hard work the students did – our students helping our team and in helping other teams as well as other teams helping our students,” he said. “There’s something very unique and special in this competition that someone would really have to go see in person to really understand.”

McLean and Wright also discussed how much of an impact this program has on the students.

“The biggest impact is that one of our students was accepted into the Air Force Academy,” Wright said. “We are all very proud of his accomplishment and know that what we do had an impact in his decision to study engineering and to join the Air Force.”

Another former student from Crenshaw, Devon Johnson, has expressed his interest in science by interning at Aerospace. Now, he helps mentor the Crenshaw team himself, and is planning to intern again this coming summer.

So volunteering helps the students, but it can be rewarding for the mentors, too.
“As big an impact as I have in these student’s lives, their impact on my life is just as great,” Wright said. “I get a daily reminder that engineering is fun, that solving technical challenges is exciting, and that I really did make the right career choice.”

He said teaching the students is the best part. “When they surprise you by applying something that you taught them the feeling is great,” he added.

McLean encourages others to volunteer with programs like FIRST, and said that Aerospace employees can have an enormous impact.

“For folks who are interested in making a difference in our communities, in our future, in the future of the aerospace industry, it is ultimately about action,” McLean said. “It’s not enough to say ‘We need to promote STEM education’ or ‘Look at how poorly our students are performing today.’ It’s ultimately about action. We may not truly change the world, but we will change the world for some.”

—Laura Johnson