The Three Laws of Skyline High School Robotics

Law 1: Gracious professionalism. Compete like crazy, but treat each other with respect.
 
Eagle Imperium Team 3322 has 31 days to complete the majority of its robot before it's zip-tied into a bag and shipped off for field testing. That's just over four weeks to build a 120-pound robot that's remote controlled, can throw, gather and hopefully catch giant exercise balls and withstand bashing into other 100lb-plus robots flying around on a small course.
 
Team 3322 built Seizure in 2010, Elset took them to the World Championships in 2012 and now they'll pin their hopes on Rohrbot, named after Matt Rohr Daniel, the team's former lead engineering mentor. Nobody is panicking. Yet.
 
Power tools buzz, giant milling machines mill and high school students and volunteer mentors spread out among two facilities and nearly a dozen rooms on a cold, wet and slushy Saturday afternoon at the Maker Works facility. Maker Works is one of the generous sponsors of Team 3322, donating space and time with their machines, as well as expert advice from staff. GM, Chrysler, Stadium Hardware and the Law Office of D Louis Weir also support the effort. 
 
Mentors navigate me through room after room of busy kids, laptops and white boards, scribbled with diagrams, arrows and a drawing of a smiling ice cream cone. One student takes me aside to explain a project he's working on, and I'm lost. Another tries to explain the purpose of a tiny metal doohickey he's grinding on a giant machine. I nod politely. These kids are smart, as well as patient and nice.
 
The 100 or so students and mentors spending their Saturday at Maker Works are part of the six-year-old Skyline High School robotics team that competes annually in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition. FIRST was created in 1989 to encourage participation in science and technology among young people and runs competitions for ages six through high school in LEGO leagues and technology and robotics challenges.
 
The FIRST Robotics Competition is the big leagues. With close to 300 robotics teams in Michigan alone (up nearly 100 since last year), the Mitten and California produce some of the most dominant teams in the U.S., with teams from Canada also posting championship results. It's always been a competitive environment, but as Team 3322 (which missed states last year) has learned, it's only getting tougher.
 
Rohrbot will compete in district competitions, looking to earn a berth at the state competition in early April and finally compete for the ultimate prize at the international championships in St. Louis at the end of April. It's all kind of a big deal.
 
Law 2: Coopertition. Compete like crazy, but assist others when you can.
 
FIRST Robotics Competition isn't bot fighting. Teams are given a different challenge each year and need to complete a robot up to the task, using limited money and limited resources. Last year the robots threw Frisbees. The year before that, they shot basketballs. This year it's exercise balls.
 
At the competition the robots will be pitted against each other in a game called Aerial Assist. The objectives and scoring are tricky, so I'll let this video do the talking:
 
"There's real-world application here," says Debra Grega, a PhD in commercial biotech with a background in business development who serves as a mentor for the marketing team. "Students are essentially doing product development with real world pressure and applying math and science lessons, not just going for a grade."
 
Her son, Jacob Beckerman is in his fourth year with Team 3322, serving in a leadership position with the team's CAD group. His experience with FIRST has led to a part-time job doing prototyping, which Debra hopes will give him valuable experience for a future in engineering.
 
FIRST stresses excellence in science, technology and engineering, but puts a premium on "gracious professionalism". FIRST is set up to act much like the real world, with internal structures, teams working towards a common goal and competition, but the organization rewards teams that are gracious to opponents or go out of their way to help. It's not uncommon to see teams physically assisting others at district, state and national competitions. Even if they all, really, really want to win.
 
Law 3: Pizza. For eating.
 
It's hard to forget sometimes that these are high school students. They're manufacturing, programming, wiring, designing and trying to explain to someone like me how it all works. But there are definitely cracks in the armor. There's lots of pizza and teenage awkwardness and, encouragingly, a good number of female team members participating right alongside the boys. 
 
Team 3322 is made up of 60 students on the varsity squad, split into work groups to tackle specific components of the robot — drivetrain and programming/electrical, above chassis (the gatherer and ball launcher) and a systems team. There's also a marketing team for promotion, fundraising and to help win the prestigious Chairman's Award. Team 3322 also has a JV squad of 40-50 eager young underclassmen who are tasked with creating new robot pit designs, building battery carts and constructing robot movers, while learning what it takes to contribute on the big boy in the coming competitions.
 
Team captain, Kaleb Fox walks me through the different stages of the build the three times I visit over the course of two months. In the beginning he was a little nervous,  but on the final night before the robot is bagged, he's remarkably calm.
 
When asked what the biggest challenge of being captain was, he answered, "Not building the robot." Like real life, rarely are the biggest challenges the work at hand, rather the toughest jobs are managing and organizing teams to accomplish tasks. 
 
"Taking attendance for 60 kids was really tough. I don't know them all personally, so walking around and checking off names is hard, and a sign-in sheet didn't work. The most rewarding thing about this is when a student asks me for help and I can teach them to do something, rather than just doing it myself."
 
On the night before Team 3322 has to bag Rohrbot, the team is testing the robot's autonomous drive. There aren't as many kids as there have been on the weekends, but everyone in attendance is excited and buzzing around during final preparations. They'll still have time to work on the gatherer and catapult sections of the robot before their first district competition on Friday, but there's a sense of relief in the room. After six weeks of building, they have a robot. It can move on its own. It can gather exercise balls and it can throw them. Godspeed, Rohrbot. 

Richard Retyi is the social media manager at Ann Arbor digital marketing firm Fluency Media as well as a freelance writer for various publications. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichRetyi or read his blog at RichRetyi.com. 

All photos by Doug Coombe
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