The Exciting, Experiential Culture of FIRST Robotics

The Windsor-Essex Great Lakes Regional robotics competition was held from Apr. 2 to 4 at the St. Denis Centre. [Photo by // Hani Yassine]

by Hani Yassine
The Lance – Arts Editor

There’s chaos, but it’s a controlled chaos.

On each side of the arena, three teams set themselves and their creations in position, working together as an alliance. Both alliances operate within their respective halves to stack multiple totes onto a designated scoring line. They work intensely to garner points, surrounded by a packed and highly excitable audience who cheer and chant throughout the match-up unfolding in front of them. Electronic music blares through the speakers and everything from the grand scheme to the nooks and crannies are being documented.

“The energy is amazing. We always say this is part NASA, part NASCAR, part formula one, part Super Bowl, part rock concert,” said Irek Kusmierczyk, director of robotics at WEtech Alliance and planning committee member.

This is the world of FIRST Robotics. Over the Easter weekend, the St. Denis Centre played home to the second Windsor-Essex Great Lakes Regional competition where 50 teams across North America competed for a place in the world robotics championship in St. Louis which begins Apr. 22. Each team consists of 20 to 30 high school students.

The game played is Recycle Rush. Two alliances pitted in the same scenario rank up as many points as possible by having their robots stack totes and place them upon a white scoring platform. In working with other teams, there comes the strong emphasis on teamwork. But there’s an even stronger emphasis for the business outside the arena.

“We like to say every robotics team is a start-up company, and these kids get real world project management experience,” Kusmierczyk said.

“It’s not just building a robot, it’s building a brand,” echoed Shreya Subramanian.

Subramanian is a grade 12 high school student part of the team Inverse Paradox. Based in Mississauga, they’re one of the more seasoned teams within the Ontario circuit, competing in FIRST Robotics competitions for just over a decade. In the pit section where teams strategize and maintain their respective robots, there are also schedules, team objectives and finance records available, mainly for designated judges to see.

“Judges come around, they look at things like your outreach and business plan and stuff like that,” Subramanian said. “It outlines how your team is sustainable and how we continue around the year.”

As far as the competition goes, Subramanian hopes to make it to the finals, while acknowledging some fierce competition.

The teams aren’t merely teams, but establishments. Many are backed with a great host of sponsors and providers. These technical undertakings are inevitably intertwined with the business sense, leading students to consider management, project constraints and efficiency above all.

“We give them our budget, we know what we spend, we know what it takes to run it, we know where we have weak spots,” said Stefan Sing, a mentor for the Inverse Paradox team and engineering student at the University of Windsor. “We can make this four different ways. Based on our resources, our money and our time, what’s the most efficient?”

Sing said anything taken from the team is always given back for the sake of the students. Every group is entirely non-profit and everything put together is largely out of love and passion for the work.

This is Windsor’s second robotics competition, but the Windsor-Essex Great Lakes Regional is the largest robotics competition in Canada. FIRST Robotics isn’t a name ringing out too loudly on a local circuit, but it’s an otherwise expansive organization with 350,000 students, 150,000 volunteers and 3,500 sponsors.

Katherine Tillie is a physics teacher at Holy Names High School as well as the team’s robotics coach. Making their debut last year.

“I honestly just read about it in the paper and I thought ‘How does Holy Names not have a team?’,” Tillie said. “When we started this season I didn’t even know what I was agreeing to do and then when we came here the magnitude of this whole event and how exciting it is, we were overwhelmed with it last year.”

Last year Holy Names went to the world championships as wild cards, but failed to make it past the quarterfinals this year. Vincent Massey High School’s robotics team will be the one representing Windsor in St. Louis later this month. Inverse Robotics will also be making an appearance upon fulfilling their expectation in making it to the finals of this regional.

In these competitions, while winning is a focus, it’s not necessarily a focal point. What FIRST Robotics ends up providing in these events is a taste of the real world. A way to demonstrate working under restrictions and under a deadline, preparing reports, data collection, and of course programming and designing great pieces of machinery.

“These students are your next generation of engineers, your next generation of programmers, your next generation of technology entrepreneurs and job creators,” Kusmierczyk said. “You’re looking at the future right here.”

A robot holding six totes attempts to move to the scoring platform during a finals match Apr. 4. (Photo by // Hani Yassine)

A robot holding six totes attempts to move to the scoring platform during a finals match Apr. 4.
[Photo by // Hani Yassine]

A member of Inverse Paradox brings in additional totes to the arena during a finals match-up Apr. 4. (Photo by // Hani Yassine)

A member of Inverse Paradox brings in additional totes to the arena during a finals match-up Apr. 4.
[Photo by // Hani Yassine]

A team looks up at the score to find out the results of a finals match-up Apr. 4. (Photo by // Hani Yassine)

A team looks above at the screen to find out the results of a finals match-up Apr. 4.
[Photo by // Hani Yassine]

Members of Inverse Paradox huddle around at their pit during the qualification rounds Apr. 3. (Photo by // Hani Yassine)

Members of Inverse Paradox huddle around at their pit during the qualification rounds Apr. 3.
[Photo by // Hani Yassine]

A student brings his team's robot towards the arena during the qualification rounds Apr. 3. (Photo by // Hani Yassine)

A student brings his team’s robot towards the arena during the qualification rounds Apr. 3.
[Photo by // Hani Yassine]

Pits from 50 teams take up the second half the St. Denis Centre's fieldhouse during the qualification rounds Apr. 3. (Photo by // Hani Yassine)

Pits from 50 teams take up the second half the St. Denis Centre’s fieldhouse during the qualification rounds Apr. 3.
[Photo by // Hani Yassine]

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