The Rise of RobotX

Khan Lab School
June 12, 2018 / 5 mins read

Since September, Khan Lab School's robotics team has been building a game-playing robot to compete against dozens of experienced teams in the FIRST Robotics Regional. The competition is held every year to encourage youth to not only explore robotics but also to compete in the technical sport. This March, RobotX won the Highest Rookie Seed Award at the competition, making them the best beginner team to compete.

RobotX consists of 15 students and Coach Megan Burns (the STEM Specialist at KLS). The team is comprised of students with varying backgrounds who felt robotics combined many of their interests into a unified project. Robotics is a team effort, with students pooling their knowledge to build a robot designed to complete a certain task. While some students focused on physically assembling the robot, others worked on programming and writing code to ensure the robots could perform required tasks. It takes time, patience, and teamwork to get through the many rounds of trial and error necessary to ensure a functioning robot. Very few students had robotics experience prior to joining the club, but everyone was eager to learn and contribute towards their end goal.

“Robotics gave us all a new experience in the STEM field,” said Dilan, a student in Independence Level 5. “I think FIRST is looking for new members in the STEM field and this allows opportunities for students who want to be engineers. It shows you what it would be like to do this in real life.”

Building Foundational Skills

Megan created the Extended Day club because she wanted to give Middle & Upper School students a genuine competitive robotics experience, from start to finish. Dozens of students expressed interest in joining when the club sign-ups were posted. “I pitched to them the idea that they could be a real committed robotics team,” said Megan, who initially only scheduled the team to meet for one hour per week. “I wanted to keep their interest inbuilding foundational skills.” Megan prepped the kids by leading design challenges, building prototype models, and showing them videos of other schools' robotics competitions.

“It was really important for them to understand how to visually represent an idea, from a design standpoint,” said Megan.

RobotX had to use teamwork from the beginning: they had to establish expectations for each other, create a work schedule in which they had time to build and practice, and delegate tasks to one another. Team decisions were made with input from all members of RobotX.

“Teamwork is super important because there is so much to do on a small team,” said Anjeli, an Independence Level 6 student. She says she had to learn how to take initiative while also delegating tasks and trusting others' opinions. “You need to be able to work well with your teammates because everything passes through everyone's hands.”

They also worked with other teams, like Mountain View High School, which has been a part of the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) for 15 years. The Mountain View Spartans held workshops for electrical work and helped RobotX team members gain computer-aided design (CAD) skills and obtain several robot parts throughout the build season.

They also attended a rookie robotics kickoff on January 6 along with 20 other teams, which helped them create the chassis (the internal framework and the base) for their robot. The event, called FRC Kickoff at Sun Power, is designed to give rookie teams the support they need in the earliest stage of building their robot, specifically its base, electrical components, and motors.

Putting in the Time

RobotX eventually increased their meeting frequency to twice per week during “Build Season”, which is from January until mid-February, and is the only time teams are allowed to work on their robots. Megan also opened her classroom for students to work on projects during Goal Time after school from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. each day.

“We wanted to build a reliable but simple robot that we knew we could finish a week before the deadline,” Megan said. She wanted to give the kids a full week to ensure the robot worked effortlessly and to practice using the robot before “putting it in the bag.” All robots had to be “bagged” (completed) by a certain date; teams could not work on them until the competition to ensure fair deadlines across all teams. This ended up working in RobotX's favor, as they benefited from a full week of learning how to control and troubleshoot the robot.

The specific goal of the FIRST competition was to create a game-playing robot that could maneuver any kind of terrain. No one knew exactly what the arena would look like and what tasks they would ultimately be asked to complete in the arena.

It was important to Megan that the students designed, programed, and assembled the robot themselves, rather than having experienced mentors do the majority of the work. IL6 student Nick, who had some previous robotics experience, used CAD to design the robot with input from his teammates. Jeff Spragg, a software engineer from Google, also came to campus to mentor the students as a volunteer for FIRST.

Additionally, students wrote letters to local companies asking for sponsors to help support their project. This taught the students how to develop their marketing skills for future endeavors.

“The hardest thing was writing the letters asking for sponsorship. These people get hundreds of emails a day, so you need to make it short but convey your message. It needs to be memorable, otherwise they'll totally dismiss it,” said Anjeli.

The Competition

The FIRST Robotics Competition took place March 15 - 18, 2018 and consisted of ten qualifying matches, in which teams competed for the highest ranking. All teams competed with the goal of being ranked within the top eight teams at the competition. Schools were divided into alliances and had to work with other teams' robots to meet their objectives. They had to complete multiple challenges, such as stacking as many of their “power cubes” (a.k.a. milk crates) as possible and using the power cubes to control either the switch or scale. The competition is meant to simulate a video game, and the specific challenges change each year.

The first day was reserved for practice, which gave RobotX an opportunity to allow all team members to get hands-on experience driving the robot. Since they had troubleshot the robot for the last week of build season, they had minimal changes to make and were able to watch and learn from other competing teams instead.

“I liked how the competition allows anyone to be able to participate,” said Aryan, a student in Independence Level 5. “Anyone can be a part of it, no matter what their interest is or capabilities are.”

“Robotics takes hands-on learning to another level, as it teaches participants all the aspects involved in building a company,” said Caleb. “Robotics isn't just robots, it's the maintenance of your own mini-company… it teaches students every aspect of engineering and management.”

Building a robot as a team not only brought the students closer, but also allowed them to develop their character strengths and cognitive skills, traits they require for theirgraduate profile.

“We learned that we are a really good team but we can't win matches without an alliance,” said Megan. “We needed to use teamwork and have other teams' support.” Their perseverance paid off as they became the highest ranked amateur team at the competition, earning them the Highest Rookie Seed Award. This past year has been an invaluable learning experience for RobotX; the lessons they learned and the experiences they gained will play a vital role in helping them improve their strategy for next year's competition.