Austin, Chief Engineer for a high school FIRST Robotics team, discusses the thrill of the competition and lessons learned in science, technology, and teamwork.

The FIRST Robotics Experience
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The FIRST Robotics Experience

Inventors love robots. At Intellectual Ventures, we enjoy sharing our machine-building enthusiasm with youth who have an interest in design, a knack for problem-solving, and an appreciation for power tools. To help encourage more students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), we support one of the most festive STEM programs for teens around—the FIRST Robotics Competition.  Austin, chief engineer on the 2013 Auburn Mountainview High School team, shares the challenges and the "Eureka!" moments that come when  designing, prototyping, and testing a Frisbee-flinging, pyramid-scaling robot.

Before joining a FIRST Robotics Competition team, were you interested in STEM?

Since 4th grade, I’ve known that I wanted to go into a STEM-based career. I’ve always had an aptitude for mathematics and science, but FIRST helped me use that aptitude.

For the 2013 FRC Challenge “Ultimate Ascent," teams had to build a robot capable of flinging discs into goals and climbing pyramids. What went through your mind when the challenge was revealed?

We never suspected that Frisbees would be a game piece. After I got over that surprise, I started coming up with ways of picking up the discs and climbing the pyramid. I thought climbing the pyramid would be the hardest part. (Video: Ultimate Ascent robots in action)

How did your team approach the challenge?

We broke off into five or six different groups and started talking with our mentors—teachers, alumni, and volunteers from sponsor organizations such as Intellectual Ventures—about ideas and design concepts. We came back together as a big group to share ideas, and then FIRST alumni and team mentors took our top ideas and worked on prototyping a robot design. By the end of the day, we already had a working prototype for the robot’s disc shooter. Each week we resumed discussions about the robot designs, cementing concepts like our drive-base shooter and continuing debates about whether we should use a two-wheel or one-wheel design.

What types of STEM skills were represented on your FIRST Robotics team?

We had designers, builders, electricians, programmers, writers, strategists, artists, video editors, project managers, creative people, presenters, cheerleaders, and "glitter captains" (a.k.a. team spirit people) on our robotics team. We accommodate all these different skills and people by dividing our team into sub-teams, grouping like skills together. If something needs to get done, we work together among our groups, checking compatibility and progress along the way. This usually works out pretty well.

What steps did you take to turn your robot concept into a functional machine?

As we came up with our different design ideas, we asked our design team (I was a member of this sub-team) to design the robot in 3-D using the AutoCAD software. We tweaked our original designs as needed and made more renditions. We made the shooter smoother and changed the motor we were using. After proving our concept, we sent designs to one of our sponsors for pieces to be machined. Most of our prototyping was done digitally, using physics and measurements to predict how the bot could shoot discs and climb. Our only proof of concept came with the final design. We knew that it was mathematically proven to work, and it did!

What was the most important step in the bot-building process?

In my opinion, the most important part of the build process isn't even the building itself. The most important part is the design process. The team creates the fate of the whole rest of the bot-building season in those first two design weeks.

Did you ever have to go back to the “drawing board”?

The hardest challenge to overcome was the robot size and weight constraints. On our final day for building, when we have to bag up the robot and not touch it again until our first competition, we weighed our robot. It was one-and-a-half pounds over the weight limit! At the last minute before competition, when other teams were strategizing and scouting the competition, we were trying to come up with ways to reduce our robot’s weight. We switched out a bunch of our brackets and redesigned our climbing supports, which thankfully brought the bot’s weight below the competition limit.

When did you realize you had a good robot concept? Describe your “Eureka!” moment.

The moment I knew we had a solid design concept came with simple testing of our bot’s disc shooter. We set up a three point goal and measured the bot’s angle and the distance away from the target. It was a painstaking process that eventually paid off. No matter how far our robot was from the disc goals, we could fairly accurately predict a good angle for shooting the discs into the goals. Positioning our bot about three quarters of the way across the field gave our shooter bout 75 percent accuracy. Watching those discs fly into the goal from that distance made me realize we had a solid design.

Did your robot function as expected during competition?

I think our robot actually performed even better than expected at competition--most of the time. There were a couple of times when something wouldn't work as expected, but we would solve the issue and be back in the competition right away. Auburn Mountainview High School was a fierce competitor, and for the first time we were invited to attend the Championships, where our robot competed against top bots across the world. We ended the competition 16th place overall, and in the top 3 percent worldwide.

What’s one lesson you learned that will help you confidently approach the next challenge you encounter?

Creativity is key. As Albert Einstein said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." That is why imagination and creativity are so important. If a challenge is presented to you and you can't solve it, sometimes it is good to take a step back and look at it again in a different light. I did this many times as a part of FIRST.

What advice would you give to a peer who has an idea and wants to turn it from concept to reality?

Be forgiving when working on an idea with a team. If you hold on to your single idea too much you will create a blind spot for yourself and be detrimental to the progress as a whole. You have to keep sight of the overall goal, not the individual idea. If you are working alone on an idea, focus on it and take small steps. If you move too fast, you can lose quality. Look for others who can help you bring your idea to reality. If money is an issue, apply for grants and ask for donations. Depending on the nature of your idea, prototype and test it before making it final.

Intellectual Ventures has been a proud supporter of Washington FIRST teams since 2011. In that time, nearly two dozen Intellectual Ventures employees have mentored hundreds of local teens. To learn how you can help inspire kids across the country through invention, visit the national FIRST website

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