FIRST STEAMWORKS challenges students to work together

BIG RAPIDS — Ingenuity, cooperation and problem-solving are three skills valued in the workplace, and area teens are getting a jump-start on developing those traits through their local high school robotics teams.

Big Rapids High School, Crossroads Charter Academy, Evart High School, Morley Stanwood High School and Reed City High School all participate in For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics. FIRST Robotics, created in 1992 by Dean Kamen to encourage students' interest in math and science.

Each year features a different game. The challenge for 2017 is FIRST STEAMWORKS, with the premise of two competing adventurers' clubs preparing their airships for a long-distance race. Two alliances of three teams each use their robots to pick up balls, representing fuel; shoot the balls through holes to put fuel in the "boiler;" pick up gears to deliver to "pilots" and then turn a crank to start the "rotors" and finally climb a rope to signal they're ready for take-off.

The Cyber Coyotes from Reed City High School finished in the middle of the pack at its first event of the season earlier this month at Lakeview in Battle Creek.

The finish wasn't what mentors Brad Smith and Jestin VanScoyoc or team members expected. However, the team garnered the Industrial Design Award sponsored by General Motors for the event, the first judged award the team has received in its seventh year of competing.

"We didn't do as well as we hoped," Smith said earlier this week.

"It's not like we did poorly," VanScoyoc said, adding, "One thing went wrong here and then something else went wrong in another portion. Earning a Judge's Award is a big deal, it was the first for our program."

"We're in a holding pattern right now," Smith said. "We're revising and revamping things that need to be tweaked and changed."

For now, their competition robot is neatly tucked away until they are allowed to touch it in preparation for the April 6 event in Traverse City.

However, work is being done on a practice robot, built to address things they learned from the event in Battle Creek.

"We spoke to some elite teams, and that's how they do it — build two machines," Smith said. "One is always a practice robot and work on it constantly and the other one is bagged up."

With Quiz Bowl, spring sports and other extra-curricular activities, VanScoyoc said team members are in and out but work is always getting done.

RCHS senior Zachary Agan was busy working on the practice robot.

"I'm modifying what I can and seeing if it will work," he said. "The robot has to climb up a rope, so we've got to figure that out and make sure it works."

The Cyber Coyotes members have been busy this season, as they've helped mentor Lakeview, Baldwin and Evart robotics teams.

"It's pretty cool that our kids were able to help and mentor them," VanScoyoc said. "They get into helping others and sportsmanship. That's what it's really about."

"It's all about networking," Smith added.

Evart High School began its rookie season in January and is preparing for its first competition this weekend in Gaylord, said Principal Jessica Kolenda, a team mentor.

"It's been real exciting to see the kids build their robot and get it moving around," she said at the Evart Public Schools Board of Education meeting recently. "Math teacher Ted Marthakis is helping the kids a lot."

Getting the fuel in the boiler is a small portion of the overall challenge the Big Rapids High School team, the Big Red Theory, has been preparing for. Though the team has not worked on their robot recently, members have been able to keep an eye on the challenges shown on the FIRST Robotics website and come up with plans for the competition.

"When we were strategizing as a team, we thought shooting the ball was going to be a large part of the challenge," said coach Andrew Defever. "Once we saw picking up gears was the bigger portion, we had to rethink how we wanted the robot to work."

With adjustments to their strategy made, Defever said his team is ready to compete in the team's first competition of the season March 24 through 26 at Grand Valley State University.

"There always is an element of nervousness," he said. "Going to Grand Valley to compete against so many other schools always is a challenge, but the kids are confident. We believe we have a strong robot. The team is excited. We're competing later than normal and we are ready to get into competition season."

While Big Rapids is just starting out this year, another local team is reaching the end of its season.

Crossroads Charter Academy High School coach Timothy Locker said his team is working toward its final district meet for the year.

"The students have been working on things to make our robot better," he said.

With the competition just days away, Locker's team has been split into groups, and each has a different task. Four team members, of the 17 registered this year, will be the drive team.

These four teammates will go and play a part in the competition while others go to watch the different teams compete. They then will help create strategies for the CCA team, Locker said. Generally, Locker said, students' grades improve being a part of the robotics team.

"Some things the students learned in the classroom can be used for the robot," he said. "The students do welding, electronics and things working with pneumatic systems. This is a real-world application. It seems to be a good thing to do for students to use what they learned in school."

That type of hands-on experience is one of the benefits for participants, said James Nelson, who co-coaches the Morley Stanwood High School team with Dave Nelson, a high school science teacher.

"They get a fun challenge and problem-solving experience as they go through the process," James Nelson said. "Plus, they get some exposure to really cool technology."

Now in its second year, the Morley Stanwood team has a better grasp of what's expected in competition. Team members have put in more hours this year now that there's a better understanding of what's necessary to be competitive, Nelson said.

"Last year, we didn't really know what we were getting into," he said. "The kids have been great about staying after school and coming in on weekends to put in the time needed to build the robot."

"Last year, all we did was drive the robot," said team member Tyler LaFontsee Jr. "That was kind of expected, since it was our first year. This year, we're hoping to do a lot more. I think we're ready to do a lot better this year than last year.

"I like the teamwork and trying to solve problems," he continued. "There's always new problems to try and solve."

The team will compete in its first match March 24 through 26 at Grand Valley State University, and in its second match April 7 through 9 in Shepherd.