COVID-19 pulled the plug on many rites of passages for high school students. Proms, sporting events and other club activities were all casualties of the worldwide pandemic.
But for a small group of Surprise student engineers, losing the regional robotics competitions was the biggest bummer of them all.
“The day before we were going to go to Flagstaff [for the Arizona North Regional] they canceled it,” said Surprise resident Noel Robertson, 16, a member FRC Launch Team 6352. “It was disappointing because we had really worked hard.”
It all turned out OK, though, for the team based out of Surprise. It ended up taking home a top award from the main robotics organization in the country.
Launch Team 6352 is part of FIRST, which means For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It was founded in 1989 as a way to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. It has since grown exponentially with the past season featuring 645,000 students participating on more than 77,400 FIRST teams in more than 110 countries.
Across the U.S., public and charter schools participate in FIRST Lego Leagues, FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST robotics competitions.
The Surprise team in May won the FIRST Chairman’s Award, which recognizes the team that best embodies the spirit of FIRST and works to spread STEM in the community.
But like everything in the age of COVID-19, the ceremony to find out if the team won the award was held online, not in-person.
“Our team put together a watch party,” said Stephen Robertson, Noel’s older brother, and the person who formed the local team four years ago. “We were all intently awaiting to hear anything.”
Noel said it was exciting to see everybody’s reactions when the team’s name was announced, especially with how their season ended so abruptly in March when the competition was just heating up.
“This award is significant in the world of FIRST, and many tech and manufacturing businesses support FIRST Clubs around the world,” said Seth Dyson, the director of the Surprise Human Services and Community Vitality Department.
The city of Surprise has been a big supporter of the team since first discovering them at the city’s 2018 SciTech Festival. It has been offering meeting space through the AZTechCelerator and provided grants.
The Surprise Community Outreach Program helped Mr. Robertson start the FIRST Tech Challenge program at Paradise Honors Middle School. That has since expanded into a second team, as well as the first ever school-based FIRST Robotics Competition team in Surprise at Paradise Honors High School.
The small group, which includes 11 students and about six or seven adult mentors, mostly works out of a mentor’s garage in north Peoria near Sunrise Mountain High School.
But thanks to sponsorship, the team is able to afford building the robots and paying the $5,000 entry fees for the competitions. The team also conducts other fundraisers and accepts donations from restaurants to help feed the students while they’re working on the projects.
Mr. Robinson, a junior electrical engineering student at ASU, said the skills the students on the local team are learning are invaluable.
“I’d say it helps out the businesses in the community because we’re really getting the students prepared for the next generation of STEM careers,” Mr. Robertson said.
Launch Team 6352 is a community-based FIRST robotics team, which in itself is unique, being open to anyone in the community and not tied to a school.
That gives Surprise students who are home-schooled or out of school a chance to participate.
“If they’re interested we want to give them the opportunity to compete,” Mr. Robertson said.
The competitions and the teams themselves are different every year.
This abbreviated season started in January with the reveal for the game for the regional competition. It’s about a six-week process for teams to find out that year’s theme and build their robots.
At this year’s canceled competitions, the game the team had to play was a popular theme, “Star Wars: Force for Change.”
It included powering up a shield generator and controlling a robot to shoot balls into two goals, one high and one low.
The first 15 seconds were preprogrammed before team members took control with the use of joysticks and an old XBox controller.
The Surprise team was able to win the Chairman’s Award even with competing in regionals. That’s because the award itself has nothing to do with the robot game at the end of the season.
“It pushes the idea that it’s more than robots,” Mr. Robertson said. “Its given to team that works hard to spread the word about STEM fields in the community.”
To be considered for the award, every team submits an essay that the students have to write and also submit petitions. If the competitions were held like normal, there would have been an interview as well.
For the competitions each year, the team actively recruits new members as seniors leave.
“We see where their interests are and more than likely they’ll come and join us,” Mr. Robertson said. “It improves technical skills, but they’ll also have soft skills that will be useful, too. You can give a presentation, you can talk to adults.”
Like her brother once did, Noel, a junior-to-be, attends Paradise Valley High School, which is an hour-long commute from Surprise.
The Robertsons attended the school because their mother works near there.
“I’ve pretty much been in first robotics since second grade,” Noel said. “I’ve just progressed through the different programs.”
She helped the Launch 6532 team before she was even old enough to become an official member. The only requirement is students are at least in high school.
“I think it has made me definitely more confident,” she said. “I can share my knowledge about engineering and present [projects] better. I’ve definitely learned a lot about engineering and STEM. It’s also been nice to have some friends in Surprise.”
She said she will likely stay in the city to attend Ottawa University Arizona to become an engineer or a speech language pathologist.
But until then she plans on continuing her work with the team once things get back to normal.
Larry Cohen, the president of FIRST, was thinking positive in his address to the FIRST community when announcing the season’s awards.
“The global pandemic stopped our season, but the mission of FIRST continues — our community will make sure of that,” Mr. Cohen said. “The past weeks have demonstrated that you are all innovators who can impact your communities and change the world… and that FIRST really is more than robots.”
For interest in joining the Surprise robotics team, email Mr. Robertson at firstname.lastname@example.org.