Controlling the plays on the field

The Queen’s FIRST robotics club mentors high school teams, helping them to build athletic robots

The students on the Frontenac robotics team spend up to six nights a week at the school once their competition season is underway.
The students on the Frontenac robotics team spend up to six nights a week at the school once their competition season is underway.
Photo: 
The team’s basketball-playing robot.
The team’s basketball-playing robot.
Photo: 

They weren’t talking or trying to take over the world, but the robots were full of character.

The products of many labour-intensive hours, the complexity of the robots built by the Frontenac robotics team left me dumbfounded.

I didn’t know what I had expected walking into Frontenac Secondary School, on Bath Rd., to attend the robotics team’s meeting this week, but what greeted me sure wasn’t it.

I was almost intimidated by the substantial, metal machines, and all the while awed that the grand structures had been created by young students.

An acronym meaning “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” Queen’s FIRST Robotics Club serves as a robotics team mentoring program, promoting applied science among high school students.

“The goal [of FIRST Robotics] is to inspire students to go into science and technology,” James Spencer, a first-year mechanical engineering Masters student and the club’s president, said. “We’re trying to help students to make good choices.”

The team of more than 20 students was working on two large-scale robots, one designed to shoot basketballs and the other, frisbees.

But by looking at the four-foot-tall, metal structures of exposed mechanics and wires, I wouldn’t have been able to guess.

Spencer explained to me that these were robots from the preceding years’ competitions, where the team competed regionally against other FIRST high school teams. While the competitions take place in the winter, the team was preparing for an off-season competition this fall.

The team spent their three-hour meeting tweaking the robots, which were both functional, and even jazzed up with colour changing lights.

“Rather than sitting at home playing your video games,” he explains, “you’re basically here building a robot and you’re going to play with it, you’re going to control it.” Spencer said that the team uses Xbox controllers to command the robots, as they are effectively constructing their own live video games.

When preparing for a FIRST robotics competition, the team and their mentors are given six weeks to design and build a robot that can complete a certain task, with six weeks of competitions that follow.

The competitions, Spencer said, are modeled after sports games.

“In the past they used to have games that were a little wishy-washy and you couldn’t really follow, but lately they’ve been making it more mainstream,” he said, as recent events have included soccer and basketball. “People who aren’t into robotics really can get into the sport at least.”

Brian Rasquinha, a mechanical engineering PhD student, said that the FIRST competitions promote what they call “cooperatition,” or cooperative competition between the teams.

“It’s exactly what it sounds like and it is very prevalent in the competition itself and we do try to keep that going on [within] the team,” he said. “You want to win, everyone wants to win, but you want to beat your opponents at their best I guess ... there is very much a sense of community.”

The team embraces the community atmosphere in the classroom as well, as Rasquinha said they vehemently promote participation.

“It’s interesting to get the different perspectives ... frequently the students come up with ideas that are a lot better than what we would come up with,” he said. “Often when we’re approaching a problem we’ll try and talk about it ahead of time ... and we sort of quietly and humbly have to put that idea away when the students come up with something that’s much better.”

Rasquinha said that their mentoring philosophy is to encourage students to be involved in activities according to their interests as opposed to their existing expertise.

Ian VanDuzer, who began his career in robotics as a high school student and now mentors the Frontenac team, said that the sports element of the competition helps to pique students’ interest.

“You get students in high school [who] aspire to be professional athletes ... the percentage of people who are actually good enough to get to that level is very slim,” VanDuzer, ArtSci ’14, said. “So why not inspire students to pursue realistic dreams that, by the way, solve lots of society’s problems?”

While VanDuzer himself is studying film rather than engineering, he said that skills, like time management, problem solving and interpersonal abilities, developed in robotics are transferable to other disciplines.

“Even if you’re not interested in engineering at all, the skills you learn ... you just become a much more well-rounded person; it’s the soft skills I guess,” he said.

VanDuzer said that while it was a challenge at first to take a step back from the hands-on construction, mentoring has offered him a more fulfilling experience.

“You’ll see these kids come in and ... they’re unsure of themselves because they’ve been hearing that ... they were social outcasts ever since they were in like grade 3 or 4, and … throughout the six week build season you see them develop as people and come out of their shell,” he said. “It’s just the greatest feeling ever.”

VanDuzer said that the Frontenac team defies the stereotype that robotics is for nerds.

“We’ve got a couple [of] varsity athletes on our team which is great, it’s absolutely fantastic and it’s changing the culture of the school and the community, but there’s still that kind of pervasive culture,” he said.

As part of the school’s football team, Chris Sparks said he balances his athletics with robotics and band practice, all while completing his senior year.

“I do football and track, there are a lot of the popular kids there and everyone else is just on the side line, and [robotics] is more of the people who don’t fit in, but we fit in because we don’t,” he said, leaning up against some lockers. “Everyone from everything can hang out together and it’s a lot of fun.”

Talking to Sparks, I can’t help but feel like I’ve stepped into a scene from Glee.

“I find we’re a really cliquey school,” he said. “I think robotics helps to take away from that for us. Like I know for me, if someone had none of their friends come to school one day, they can come sit with my group of friends, it doesn’t matter.”

Brendan Gillott, a grade 10 student on the team, said that robotics has given him the opportunity to meet people outside his social circle.

“It’s definitely gotten me out of my box a lot more, I used to be very introverted and didn’t talk to very many people, and then after joining this, I’ve come right out,” he said.

Having been inspired to change his prospective career path from criminology to engineering, Gillott said he hopes to one day mentor a FIRST robotics team.

“After watching all the great mentors, it’s really inspired me to try and give back,” he said. “Just seeing all these people going into something that’s their passion and working really hard for it has given me some drive to go out there and do it myself.”

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