CGHS Robotics Team Members & Mentors Talk Benefits of the STEM Program
Writer / Megan Jefferson
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. The international non-profit was started by Dean Kamen, an inventor, entrepreneur and advocate for science and technology. The program is devoted to helping young people discover and develop a passion for (STEM) science, engineering, technology, and math. FIRST is now recognized as one of the leading, non-profit STEM engagement programs for kids worldwide
Programs offered at FIRST engage kids in kindergarten through high school in exciting, mentor-based, research and robotics programs that help them become science and technology leaders. The annual programs culminate in an international robotics competition and celebration where teams win recognition, gain self-confidence, develop people and life skills, make new friends and perhaps discover unforeseen career paths.
Fourteen years ago, two Center Grove parents and two students attended a FIRST Robotics competition and were fascinated by the program. They decided to start Red Alert Robotics, a FIRST Robotics team at Center Grove High School. Since then, the program has continued to grow.
Because Center Grove High School highly values STEM learning, they repurposed the former maintenance building into a STEM lab to support student coursework in grades K-12. The Innovation Center provides a student-centered learning environment with space for a variety of student experiences including project-based learning, community partnerships, innovative collaborative learning, cutting-edge technology and it houses the Red Alert Robotics team.
Today, Red Alert has 18 mentors and 40 students on the team. Under strict rules, limited resource and an intense six-week time limit, teams of students are challenged to raise funds, design a team “brand,” hone teamwork skills and build and program industrial-size robots to play a difficult field game against like-minded competitors. Volunteer professional mentors lend their time and talents to guide each team. Each season ends with exciting FIRST competitions.
All students are invited to join, they are encouraged to bring any skills they already have, like programming, electronics, metalworking, graphic design, web creation, public speaking or videography.
“Honestly you can have any sort of skill set to be involved in FIRST robotics, you learn a lot here,” says Veronica Strange, Center Grove High School senior and Team Captain. “On our team, we have engineering and programming but we also have media and operations which does a lot of essays and presenting at competitions. So whatever part you want to be in it’s fine.”
Many team members are interested in engineering. Some kids love to tinker and want to learn how to use the tools needed to build robots — drill presses, bandsaws and CNC routers. One of the most important skills students learn is how to communicate well with one another.
Chris Osborne works for FIRST Indiana and is a mentor for the Red Alert Robotics Team. He is a former teacher and has always enjoyed being around young people. Osborne works with all Indiana teams and helps grow the program statewide.
“I’ve always had a passion for extending learning outside the classroom,” he says. “There are a lot of opportunities to be involved with extracurricular activities through sports, but there are not enough opportunities in STEM for kids to learn the same skills like sportsmanship, the opportunity to experience succeeding or failing and picking yourself back up again. I love that kids can take risks and learn those things here on the robotics team.”
Indiana participates in district model competitions where there are three events. Teams are trying to earn their way to the state championships. There are 57 teams in Indiana, 32 will qualify for the state championships and between 10 and 15 teams will qualify for the world championships. Red Alert has been competing in the district competitions for five years, they have qualified for state championships every year and they have qualified twice for the world championship.
Every January, there is a kickoff event for all FIRST Robotics teams, where they learn what the game will entail. Students see a game animation that shows them what the basketball-sized field will look like and what tasks need to be completed during the game. This year the theme was “Destination Deep Space.” There were rockets and cargo ships in which teams needed to place balls at different heights. Teams built hatches to ensure balls did not fall out of placement.
There is an element of defense involved with the game, however, unlike Battle Bots, you cannot damage other robots during play. Three robots compete against three robots at a time. The object of the game is to outscore your opponents, and points are earned based on whether or not your robots can perform certain tasks. Often there are quick 6-12-minute breaks where students need to fix their robots under a ticking clock and high pressure.
“I really like the competitions because I can be a competitive person, and I enjoy being there,” Strange says. “But my favorite part about being a part of this team is all the work that we put in at outreach events, like demonstrations for kids. It’s just amazing to see little kids get really excited and interested in STEM.”
Center Grove High School will be hosting the third FIRST Robotic district event March 29-30, which are free and open to the public. Visit redalert1741.org to learn more.