Winter break may be approaching, but Clovis Unified students involved in robotics are looking weeks ahead to January, when they will get their orders to work on a robot that can do things like stack crates or shoot rubber basketballs.
Last year Buchanan High School students were so successful they became world champions after a grueling competition that took them all the way to St. Louis.
Hundreds of students in Clovis Unified School District take on that challenge every year through a program known as FIRST Robotics.
Thomas Bayhi, outreach coordinator for Central Valley Robotics, a nonprofit in the San Joaquin Valley, said FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.
Students as young as kindergarten and all the way through high school get the opportunity to learn real world job skills, Bayhi said.
“Our particular programs are all centered around taking engineering, math, science and real world job skills like public speaking and time management and communication in groups,” Bayhi said, “and kind of packaging it in a way where it’s a really fun competition where kids are having the opportunity to really not even notice that they are learning.”
Students all over the world participate in similar robotics programs, dedicating hours of time in a six-week period to perfect the robots for competition.
“This program takes a lot of dedication but it’s a program where you have to force kids to go home at midnight because they are having so much fun learning to use a lathe or power tools in general,” said Danielle Carranco, a Buchanan High senior and CEO of the Buchanan Bird Brains, the school’s competitive robotic team. “It definitely takes a lot of dedication but you get so much out of the program it makes it worth it.”
Buchanan senior Juan Cortez, driver of the world champion robot, describes the whole experience as the “hardest fun you’ll ever have.”
“It’s a life-changing experience,” Cortez said. “After a match you’re just like ‘Oh my gosh, I feel like I’ve been holding my breath the whole time.’ ”
When Sophia Brodish, a Buchanan sophomore and the team’s computer-aided design director, realized sports were not a fit for her, she took a leap and joined the robotics team, knowing very little about it.
“When I first joined the team I couldn’t name a single thing in the shop,” Brodish said. “I started off with computer-aided design and I had no idea what I was doing, but little did I know that a year and half later I would be the director of computer-aided design and be teaching 15 members.”
The high school competitive robotics program provides less assistance from adults than other robotics programs offered in the Clovis district. Instead, students are encouraged to work together to design, build and figure out what needs to be done to be successful. Adults from Central Valley Robotics act only as mentors for the students during competitions and are there to answer questions if needed, but do not work on the robots at all, Bayhi said.
Aside from the competition, the FIRST robotics program fosters a unique experience.
“One of the big things about these programs is that they have this thing called ‘coopertition’,” Bayhi said. “It’s kind of a nonsense word, but it just encompasses the fact that everything the kids do when they are competing is also in cooperation with the other teams that are there and they are all trying to do what they can to make sure that everyone who is competing does their best.”
If one team sees another struggling to get its robot running before competition, it is expected that help will be offered, Bayhi said.
The robotics program helps prepare students for success in their futures. It teaches the students time management and how to balance schoolwork and robot work.
“I’ve never seen a program that comes anywhere near this program’s ability to prepare people for the future,” Bayhi said. “I mean every single one of us that is a part of Central Valley Robotics who did this program knows what we want to do with our career, with college, with this program, because we participated.”
Paul Lake, teacher advisor for the Buchanan robotics team, describes his students as much more than simply competitors.
“We are actively involved in community service,” Lake said. “For example, my team organized a bunch of other local teams to march in the Veterans Day Parade. We also promote the FIRST program.”
The competition season starts every year in January when the students receive a challenge, which tells the students what kind of robot to build and what the robot needs to be able to do. From there the teams have six weeks to design and build the robot from scratch. Once the six weeks is up the robot goes into a big plastic bag and is zip-tied shut until competition.
On Jan. 9, more than 3,000 teams comprised of more than 78,000 students from around the globe will receive instructions for 2016’s game and playing field, dubbed FIRST STRONGHOLD.
Lake describes the competition robots as huge, weighing around 120 to 130 pounds, and they collide with other robots during competitions.
So what is preparation like for these teams?
“It’s a pretty big process,” Bayhi said. “I mean the competitions themselves have a $5,000 registration fee so it’s a big undertaking to go to even one competition.”
The competitions are usually three-day long events, starting on Thursday and finishing on Saturday.
Once the qualifying matches are finished, the competition continues until one team is crowned the champion.
After the regional competitions, teams have a few different ways of moving on to the world championships. One way is by winning the robot games at the end of the competition and another is by winning one of two prestigious awards, the Engineering Inspiration Award or the Chairman’s Award, Bayhi said.
The Buchanan Bird Brains have been recipients of the Chairman’s award for the past two years.
“World championships is like the Super Bowl,” said Lake, the Bird Brains coach “It’s huge.”