The Bad News Bots Take On a New Challenge

Blythe Wallick, Science and Technology Writer

The Robotics team has not been immune to the myriad of cancellations that both 2020 and 2021 have produced. In a normal year, there would be a long cycle of planning, corrections, reworkings, and teamwork. All this work would lead up to interscholastic competitions and championships. Clerk Macy Volp ’22 explained that in “a normal year we prepare by watching the game plan and learning about what the competition will prepare. Then we would track the points in order to learn more about strategies for the competition. Once we know what to focus on, we can start planning and brainstorming about what structure the robot should contain.” Then she explained, “At this point in the usual year, the programmers start to plan and work on the chassis to prepare for the autonomous period of the competition.” The chassis is the robot’s frame or structural component. The autonomous period of the competition is 30 seconds relying strictly on coding, where the robot is following a preset demand. This portion holds the most amount of eligible points. Volp continued, “The rest of the team works on building the challenge specific necessities for the robot.” The information that the team creates would eventually go into a binder that encapsulates all of the information they researched and created over the course of their competition preparation. This is the binder that has won the team multiple championships in the past. 

This year, however, things are looking a little different. Volp explained, “This year all virtual competitions include sending a video of the functioning robot on the playing field, and completing them during the time frame that FTC specifies… The team has had limited capacities this year.” Although this virtual format looks different than a typical year, the robotics team has nonetheless adapted and achieved great accomplishments. The robotics team has agreed that it definitely feels disappointing and frustrating not to be competing in person this year. Matthew Malone ’23 commented on his experience on the robotics team as an underclassman, who has only experienced one half of a non-pandemic robotics season. He said, “My usual role on the robotics team is to work with batteries. I really enjoy being a part of a community that values the computer sciences so much. It’s a great passion of mine. It was definitely a different feeling being on the team before Covid, a larger sense of togetherness, however, I still really enjoy how we’ve revised our club to fit the regulations. It’s still an exciting and rewarding experience. I’m definitely looking forward to experiencing an in-person competition, though. Hopefully, everyone is vaccinated soon.” Malone’s words resonated with the general sentiment of the team. 

Faculty sponsor Jenks Whittenberg, Computer Science teacher, had this to say about his team: “Robotics has been a challenge for sure this year. In years past the team meets every Sunday in the Design Lab, works together on various aspects of a robot so that we can take the robot to Regional Meets and have it compete against other robots from area schools and teams (Archmere, Tower Hill, etc.).” He joked, “With social distancing we haven’t been able to crowd around one robot, collaborating, trying different approaches, developing new ideas, yelling at each other, talking trash, etc. (all of the essential ingredients of being on a team).” Fortunately, they have been able to do almost everything remotely, using 3D design applications to design the robot before actually building it. However, Whittenburg said that “All hands-on work (which is usually the bulk of the season, and the fun part) has been done individually. Students will “check out” various components of a robot or kit of parts, take it home, work on it, and then bring it back to present to the team. Not having the kids all together has been tough since the social aspect (sitting around, joking, trying new things with the robot, laughing when it fails, celebrating when it succeeds) has been removed from the experience.” This lack of human connection has been all too familiar to students this year. With situations like silent-lunch, socially distanced sports practices, and no whole-school collections, the social aspect of school events has been extremely limited. Although it’s necessary, it definitely puts a damper on the student body. 

If you are looking to support the robotics team this year, support them in the FTC State Finals this April for an abbreviated form of traditional competition. Whittenburg concluded, “It’s all up in the air at this point. The team has been great in that everyone has been really creative in how they can get involved but we are all certainly looking forward to getting back into the Design Lab where students can be a team as opposed to a collection of remote hard workers.”