It’s hard to imagine the Robotics workshop without the squeaks and clangs of screwdrivers and gears, the high-pitched revving of motors, the constant chatter, and the slams of robots against plastic and metal. New recruits come annually to discover and learn through trial and error how to build, program, drive, strategize, and, above all, work together as a team.
“Right now, we’re kinda in the starting phase, maybe 50% of the way through our robots,” Sixth Former Zachary Shah said. “Everyone’s got a drive train right now, and it’s just about building the rest of it.”
Building a strong, fast, light, and space-efficient base for the robot is crucial to success down the line, especially for younger teams without the experience required for many rebuilds when the robot grows more complicated. For teams with inexperienced students, much of the process right now is rebuilding the drive trains they had finished two weeks prior to maximize functionality and overall quality.
“As [Robotics Coach] Mr. Leech would say,” Fourth Former Milan Varma said, “You’ve gotta take ten steps backward before you can take ten steps backward before you can take ten steps backward until you can start again.”
While Robotics and engineering may seem meticulous, requiring precision and a deep breadth of knowledge, the learning curve is vastly different. Much of the process is just trial and error, especially for younger teams without the hands-on experience to know what constitutes a good build.
“It’s a huge learning curve,” Shah said. “There’s nothing really else like it that you can do at school. It takes a lot of time and everyone kinda sucks at it starting out. It requires new technical skills, new programming skills…the works, pretty much.”
However, even with little to no experience, students can still build quality robots by modeling their designs after online videos and older students’ designs. The major difference between older and younger teams is the creative liberty that older students are allowed to take because of their efficiency and experience.
In addition to perfecting their craft, experienced students serve as guides and role models for less experienced students.
“That’s probably our biggest impact,” Shah said. “It’s keeping the program alive and ongoing.”
Sixth Former Arnav Sardasai added, “We want to create a lasting legacy.”
Despite the experience gap, not all new students are underclassmen, and not all experienced students are seniors. Some students start their experience in the middle school VEX robotics division, VEX IQ.
While the materials for VEX IQ are all plastic, as opposed to the upper school division’s aluminum and steel, “The process is pretty similar in routine,” Shah said. “You look at the game, come up with your own ideas, try them out. Even if you see a good robot online, there’s always a lot of just thinking that goes into actually figuring out how to build it.”
Many students find themselves thrust into this learning curve, and for better or for worse, they get sucked into the working process. Much of the building process is trial by fire, often with students working late into the nights leading up to tournaments. Disaster—anything from a dysfunctional buggy controller to vital pieces of the robot not working—can strike at any moment, so students must know how to adapt.
The overall goal of these preparations is to be ready for competition. Tournament matches themselves are structured in two teams in an alliance versus another alliance. Every grouping, regardless of skill level, is completely random. It’s not uncommon for five of your eight matches to give you teammates who forgot their batteries at home and opponents who haven’t left their robots’ side day in and day out. If a team gets a match with a much more experienced team, they learn to not impede their partner’s ability to use their assets to the fullest. “You just have to deal with it,” said Fifth Former David Stewart.
From the weeks and long nights before the competition to the end of that last match, the entire process is completely frantic and chaotic. It’s impossible to imagine a team that doesn’t have anything go wrong at some point. With so much chaos, stress, and pressure, what keeps these students going?
“[The best part is] just winning, to be honest. It’s such a long season, from the end of August to the end of Spring, so you’re doing a lot and thinking about your robot for so many days,” Shah said. After all, with only seven competitions a year, doing well in those is both a goal to strive for and the ultimate reward.
“There’s a lot of good things [about Robotics], but if I had to choose one, it would have to be the mood at the competitions” Stewart said. “You need to be able to work on the spot, you need to improvise… doing better than what you expected is just like adrenaline, and it’s so exciting for me.”
Robotics teaches teamwork, dedication to perfection, harnessing passion in support of your team, and recovering quickly from devastating losses. But, above all, every student in the program agrees that it is incredibly fun. While the workload is high the payoff is well worth the cost.
While building, attending tournaments, and researching and expressing their creative ideas, Robotics students meet dozens upon dozens of people they would never have talked to otherwise.
Through all the adversity students face, they press ahead without fear of failure, guided by experienced students and their coaches: Chemistry teacher Mr. Will Leech, Physics and Calculus teacher Mr. Adam Myers, and Science and Finance teacher Ms. Alexandra Surdel.
As the signature event on the first weekend of December at Worcester Polytechnic Institute approaches, students will prepare their solid foundations and continue building. Many teams hope to finish their drivetrain and prototype their launching mechanism required for this year’s “game” in which discs are launched into goals to score points. Teams hope to use this signature event and upcoming local events to qualify for the state championship and the following world championship. The team, the Cavalry 169, is working to maintain the legacy of the robotics program, and they are enjoying every step along the way.