A hundred-pound robot emblazoned with sponsors’ logos and protected by red bumpers entered the ring filled with obstacles. It reached the end of the course, picked up a ball, lifted it, and with pin-point accuracy tossed it through a hoop.
A feat of engineering, made even more impressive by its creator: a team of high school students.
The robot was built in only six weeks, in accordance with the rules of the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition. In that short time, Stormgears 5422 — which includes 44 students from Westford Academy, Chelmsford High School, and Acton-Boxborough Regional High School — brainstormed how the robot would complete the challenges, built prototypes, designed the robot, developed software, and finally built the robot.
After fighting its way through two district competitions, the team’s 15-inch-tall robot is headed to the FIRST World Championship in St. Louis April 27-30 to take on 450 teams from 19 countries.
The robot went through several stages before its final design.
“On the first prototype, the tank was too low, so we had to scrap it,” said Mohak Jain, 16, a Stormgears member. “We wanted it to be a consistent offensive robot, so we decided how through prototyping, seeing how it would intake the ball, different ways to get over obstacles.”
The hard work paid off at the Boston district tournament, when the team was honored with a creativity award for designing innovative tank treads that were able to guide the robot over the obstacles without compromising speed.
Jain controlled the shooting mechanism, Tejus Surendran directed it where to go, and Steve Traylor, one of many adult mentors, oversaw the operation.
“I love seeing it come to life,” said Jain. “It’s a stressful six weeks, there’s a lot of metal sitting around, but by the end it’s a moving machine. That’s what’s most inspiring.”
The Stormgears went to the world championship for the first time last year in St. Louis.
“Worlds is a heck of an experience,” said Jain. “You see serious competitors, but there’s a great atmosphere. For example, if a team needs a part, the competitors will give them the part even though they want to win, to make sure it’s fair. It’s like family.”
The Stormgears took home the Rookie All-Star Award for excellence both in robot building and community involvement. This year’s 29th-place finish in the district tournament did not qualify the team to return to the nationals, but they’re going because they won the Engineering Inspiration Award for their community outreach efforts getting more kids involved in robotics, engineering, and other STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) activities.
“We went to our community, to talk about our passion for STEAM and promote that,” said Jain. “We talked to thousands of people, and we have contacts in India, the Philippines, Spain, and Hong Kong.”
They help mentor foreign teams through Skype and help bring technology to local kids who would not otherwise be able to afford it. Stormgears team member Alekh Beri and his mother, Stormgears mentor and engineer Asmita Beri, brought STEAM to schools in India while they were abroad.
“I personally went to India, to four schools, to talk to 50 students and 10 teachers about engineering,” said Alekh Beri. “A girl came up after a workshop and said she had always heard of robots but this was the first time she could see and touch them, and that it changed her life. It inspired us to do more outreach to kids.”
One way they expanded their outreach is through their STEAM Splash program.
“STEAM Splash is an in-a-box concept, like a small cardboard box, that contains all the tools to start a FIRST Lego League team on your own,” said Jain. “Materials, tips to create a project, and any number of activities to help a new FLL organization, all inside one box. We’re packaging our passion.”
FLL is a FIRST program aimed at kids grades 4-8 where they learn how to build robots with Lego bricks. The idea for the kit was so impressive, the Stormgears are working on a partnership with Springboard , a company that works on bringing enriching after-school programs to schools.
“It’s a great experience for high schoolers,” said Asmita Beri. “It gives kids an opportunity to work with industry professionals side by side with technology, software, programming, and putting it all together with the robot and having fun with it.”Christina Bagni can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.