Success by Design

In its first year of competition, USM’s FIRST Robotics team won the regional competition and qualified to compete at the national championship.

When you enter the arena, one of the first things you notice is the swarm of young people milling about the lobby. As you navigate your way through the packed fans to your seat, you’re bombarded with flashing lights, loud music, and cheering. But this isn’t a rock concert or sporting event—it’s the FIRST Robotics regional competition in Chicago. And this was only the second competition to date for USM’s rookie robotics team—which won the competition and earned the right to compete in the national championship.

Members of USM’s FIRST Robotics team at the awards ceremony for the regional competition.

Founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competitions seek to build self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills while motivating young people to pursue opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math. Students have six weeks to design, build, program, and test their robot to meet the season’s challenge, which changes each year. This year’s challenge consisted of three components: tipping a scale; exchanging power cubes; and climbing a scale. Each team is randomly paired with two other teams to form an alliance, and whichever alliance earns the most points wins the match.

The requirement for teams to work together is what makes the FIRST program unique. “FIRST Robotics is not just about having a superior robot,” said David Anderson, the school’s innovation engineer and robotics team coach. “Students have to be able to strategize with their alliance teams—sometimes complete strangers—to win the round. They have to be able to ‘sell’ their robot’s strengths, analyze other teams’ strengths, and manage a complex set of relationships, much like what happens in a work environment.”

Siblings Jacob ’19 and Marissa ’20 Skor brought prior robotics experience with them when they transferred to USM from a school in London in fall 2018. “My brother and I were on the robotics team at our previous school and we had a huge passion for it,” said Marissa, the team’s co-captain. With leadership and coaching from Anderson, who successfully led several robotics teams before joining USM, Wildcats team #6823 was born.

The team consists of Upper School and Middle School students, each assigned to specific areas of expertise. Fabrication, coding, electronics, finance and media, and a drive team are just some of the tasks needed to build and operate the 150-pound robot in six weeks. “All of those components have to work together,” said co-captain Brandon Montijo ’19. “The coders can’t work independently from the fabricators, for example.”

The students utilized USM’s new Lubar Center for Innovation and Exploration—a collaborative space conducive to both brainstorming and fabrication—to design, build, and test their robot. “The space was really perfect for us and we had everything we needed,” said Montijo. “And because there were other student projects happening at the same time, we could borrow tools and ideas to be really innovative.

The students’ hard work paid off: the team, along with the two other teams on their alliance, won the regional competition in Chicago, and the Wildcats won the Rookie Inspiration Award sponsored by National Instruments. As a result of their win, they competed in the national championship in Detroit in April, where the Wildcats ranked 60th in their division (out of 67) and once again won the Rookie Innovation Award. Prior to the regional competition, the team reached the semifinals of the FIRST Robotics Competition Festival de Robotique in Montréal.

Kamen was on hand to kick off the regional event in Chicago, and while he may not be a rock star, you wouldn’t know it by the roar of the crowd when he took the stage. “It’s not about the robots,” he said. “It’s never been about the robots. We are not using kids to build robots. We are using robots to build kids.”

Video of the final, game-winning match of the regional competition (USM’s robot is #6823):

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