Somerville High School Robotics Engineers another successful season
The Somerville High School Robotics team’s work took on a frenetic pace in January 2022, with students working long hours after school to problem-solve and engineer solutions to prepare their competition robot, BONK. Every year, there is a new challenge and the 2022 challenge, Rapid React, includes fifteen seconds of functioning autonomously. Then team drivers pick up the remote control and, for the remaining two minutes and fifteen seconds of competition, control the robot as it picks up cargo (balls), moves into position and shoots cargo into a lower or upper basket, and then spends the last seconds of the match climbing a set of bars. Each successfully accomplished task earns the team points.
Physics teacher Michael Friedman has worked with the robotics team from its inception. When he started teaching in 2014, there was a groundswell of interest in developing a robotics program at Somerville High School. Mr. Friedman volunteered to lead the original team in 2015 and is the teacher lead for the team to this day. Despite a condensed first season, the robotics team took home several Rookie Awards at competitions and went on to win the Creativity Award in the 2017 World Championships. The team uses the name The Highlanders, of course!
The Highlanders compete in FIRST® Robotics events and are team #6201 in competitions. FIRST® is an international nonprofit that hosts and organizes robotics competitions worldwide. They provide a clear rule book and each year they set up new challenges, like Rapid React, for competitors. Once a team registers with the organization, they receive a standard Kit of Parts. Rookie teams also receive basic electronics. The Kit of Parts intentionally outweighs the competition weight limit, so students must choose which components to use and which to build or purchase separately. The rule book also limits the amount of money a team can spend on materials.
Skills Development in the Preseason
The 2022 robotics team is the biggest team yet and is mostly made up of younger high school students. The preseason period of skills development and community building was particularly important. The team met after school on Mondays and Thursdays in the robotics classroom, a space shared with engineering classes that meet during the school day. Students worked on skills in the areas that interest them. They chose between skills like computer-aided design, electrical work, mechanics, building, logistics, and marketing and development. The team has a library of extra parts from previous competition seasons to use for practice. Members of the team communicate with one another using professional-level messaging software tools that would be familiar to any engineer currently working in industry.
In past years, students would have applied to fill key leadership positions, taking ownership of large portions of the project. Positions include lead programmer, mechanical engineering lead, electrical lead, or business operations manager. Since this is a young team, work assignments evolved organically based on individual interests. Mr. Friedman also credits “several dedicated mentors that would come every single day to work with the kids.” A talented team of professional engineers volunteer to support students as they work. Mentors are resource people who provide guidance in overcoming tricky engineering problems, or provide feedback as a student drafts an email to a vendor or helps a student research parts and technical solutions. Mr. Friedman emphasizes that at Somerville High School, the robotics team’s work is completely student-driven from design to programming to construction.
According to mentor Gaby Waldman-Fried, in FIRST® robotics, “kids are tackling a design problem that could be solved many different ways. It gets them to see the vastness of what design can be; it’s not just a problem with a single answer!” Engineer Waldman-Fried mentors The Highlanders robotics team in the afternoons. By day she works for a well-known engineering and architecture design software company, Autodesk, making her an amazing resource for students during the design phase. Using her mechanical engineering background, she lends advice and support to students during the build phase.
Competition Season 2021-2022
Competitions are loud, exciting, and intense. During The Highlander’s first 2022 competition weekend in Reading, students repaired and tweaked their robot right up to the last minute to pass inspection for competition during Friday night set up. The robot, BONK, even had to sacrifice large googly eyes and eyebrows, which were replaced with smaller and lighter googly eyes, in order to reduce their competition weight. (Good news: BONK had eyebrows for the competition the following weekend in Revere.)
Each competition match is a face-off between two alliances of three teams each. Teams hold strategy discussions with other alliance members to learn about their strengths and weaknesses and how to complement each other to earn the most points. Alliances are randomly assigned until playoffs. Somerville has worked with a lot of teams during competitions, mostly teams from other local public high schools. The Highlanders team members also walked around before competition to meet teams and learn how other robots were constructed or coded, which is called ‘pit scouting’ in robotics parlance. Students learn that each team takes a different approach to their robot, has a different culture, and competes differently on the playing field. The Highlanders developed a climbing mechanism that was unique but effective; they scored in the top six teams for climbing in each competition. Mentor Waldman-Fried says, “every time BONK climbed, the Somerville team would go crazy. It’s a great moment. They get to see their work and see what’s possible.”
Teams earn points in each match. The eight top-scoring teams have a guaranteed spot in the Sunday playoffs. These top teams choose alliances with teams they think will strengthen their chances of winning matches. The Highlanders were chosen for playoff alliances in both weekends this season and are hoping they have earned enough points to continue to the New England District Championship in Springfield. (Watch a highlights video of The Highlanders robot BONK shooting, moving, and climbing at the North Shore District Competition in Reading.)
Teams also win awards for work they do outside the competition, with an emphasis on reaching out to their community to inspire other young people to get involved in engineering. The Somerville High School team taught robotics last summer at a local summer program. The student-built S’more Bot attends local events like the Somerville Fluff Festival, and makes s’mores for the community as a novel fundraising technique. The Highlanders also nominated one of their eleventh grade members for the prestigious Dean’s List Award this year.
In Mr. Friedman’s words, “our philosophy is that the students learn as much as possible by doing the work themselves. Mentors are there to support them.” Students have a high level of freedom in how they approach tasks and problems. Dedicated mentor volunteers help them think through technical difficulties. Parent volunteers help the team with logistics, making team meals, and fundraising. Local company Somernova has supported The Highlanders and even arranged a launch party before the pandemic. Somernova has generously offered to provide the financial support the team needs if they progress to the District and World Championships. The City of Somerville and their Fabville team has provided space for the team and the City of Somerville paid the team registration fees. Somerville High School’s Career and Technical Education’s (CTE) Metal Fabrication Teacher Sylvain LeBrun volunteered with the team and collaborated on building the practice monkey bars for competition preparation.
There Is a Role for Everyone
Robotics team members are young engineers learning real-world professional skills as they collaborate with each other, other teams, staff members, volunteers, and community members. The team meets after school, but it is an important (and fun!) extension of the school day for its members; they apply their academic knowledge, from math to carpentry to marketing, to solve problems as they arise. The competition gives students a problem, then asks them to apply skills they know or learn to develop a collaborative solution. Robotics transcends engineering, asking students to intentionally improve their citizenship. It is also “the mechanism to give kids the idea they belong in STEM” as Innovation Specialist and SHS Robotics enthusiast Jason Behrens succinctly explained. Perhaps most importantly, students learn to work toward a common goal as a team of peers.
Watch a highlights reel of BONK shooting, moving, and climbing during competition.
Watch FIRST Robotics competitions, streamed live on Twitch: https://www.twitch.tv/firstrobotics.
Check out FRC6201 The Highlander’s 2022 season statistics: https://www.thebluealliance.com/team/6201/2022
Visit their Website: team6201.com
R. Ronen, Communications Specialist