Commands fly as the team communicates and coordinates towards a common goal. Lights flash as one player takes the offensive, leaving the other player to defend their position. On the other side, the team shoots a ball through the hoop to score points. Only this is no regular sports game: the players are not even human. They are robots.
Scotbotics, a robotics club comprised of ten PHS students, but independent of the school, is in the midst of their competitive FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) season. FTC is an alliance-style robotics competition for grades 7-12, according to firstinspires.org. Scotbotics is in its eighth season since being founded in 2009.
The team meets about three times a week, and works on their robot during those practices to prepare it for competition.
“We work out of a garage,” said four year team member senior Ryan Padua. “We have different stages. We have a planning stage, we have a brainstorm [stage]. Once we have a decent idea, we start building it and tweaking it and refining it and eventually put it on the robot itself.”
The team works largely independently, although Matt Bjork, engineer and father of club president junior Anders Bjork, helps out the team occasionally when technical problems arise.
“The mentor isn’t there to build the robot for you, because that just defeats the purpose [of the club and project],” Padua said.
Thus, the team has developed good communication and works well together despite the absence of an adult leader.
“When there’s ten people building one robot, you have to be pretty coordinated and you kind of have to understand each other more than just the stuff that you’re building,” Padua said. “So it’s not just that you’re building a robot, but you’re building a team to go along with the robot.”
Padua stressed the team-building aspects of robotics, and how it was more than just people putting together pieces of metal.
“You learn how to solve problems, and you learn how to deal with the [problems] that come up,” Padua said. “Everything goes wrong no matter what, and you just have to correct and do your best. And that is the learning more than ‘I know how to bolt these two things together.”
While some of this problem solving arises during competition, the team tries to limit failures during the initial build. In preparation, members fall into two different teams: the build team, led by Padua and the programming team, led by sophomore Sam Orta.
“We have specific roles,” Padua said. “It’s specialization.”
After building a robot, the team takes their work to competition. In competition, the robot must play a predetermined game, whether it be pressing buttons, shooting a ball into a hoop, or other basic tasks. The competition consists of a 30 second autonomous period followed by a two minute driver controlled period. Each team must work together with another team, forming an alliance.
“There are multiple rounds, ‘qualification rounds’ they’re called,” Padua said. “And each match has four teams, two teams per alliance. And you get paired up randomly.”
Although the whole team is involved during the build, two people take the controls in competition.
“I drive the base of the robot, and [junior Grace Charron] does all the stuff on the top,” Padua said.
As well as helping the team succeed, Charron pushes a side narrative by being involved: women in robotics.
“I have a function on the team,” Charron said. “The conception can be that the girl is the floater on the team that doesn’t do much, but we do. We’re fully capable. Once I found my niche on the team it got easier to bond with people.”
Padua noted that while engineering and robotics are very male dominant fields, women are no less capable, and should be encouraged to join.
“It shouldn’t matter if you’re a guy or a girl, if you enjoy it, you should be able to join the team,” Padua said.
Charron said that despite being in the minority at these tournaments, she has found a support system amongst some of the other women in the competition.
“Last competition someone from another school came up to me and said ‘Hi, we’re your alliance partner, great to see another girl here. I try to make an effort to meet every girl here,’” Charron said.
Charron has made an effort to build this community and help make other women feel comfortable in participating and getting involved.
“It’s just encouraging [to have that support],” Charron said. “It’s a shared knowledge that it’s kind of unusual for us to be out here. It was very intimidating [at my first tournament]. It was nice to know that there were people there who were supporting me.”
Beyond just building the sense of community at tournaments, Charron hopes to extend her reach beyond the high school team. Currently PMS also has an FTC robotics team that the Scotbotics occasionally help out with. Charron has hopes to build on that foundation.
“I would love to take on the team of girls there and get them up and running,” Charron said.