Robots are fascinating technological innovations. They can make coffee, comb the bottom of the sea, and even assist in military operations.
And, the future of modern robots is wide open. That prospect is thrilling to a group of students known as the Ramona Unified School District’s Robotics Team who recently won top honors at a nationwide competition.
The group is led by Ramona Community School/Mountain Valley Academy math teacher Pete Casalegno and involves students from each high school in the district. They are: Evan Ainsley, Matt Cawley, Orion Crocker, Jonathon Fish, Mikayla Gonzales, Weston Matthews, Thomas Thompson, Dominique Turgeon, James Walker, and Kaylin Williams from RHS; Ale Cervantes, Karl Hujsak, Gabriella Braye Romero, and Thomas Spencer from RCS/MVA; and Taylor Schedine from Montecito High.
It’s able to mix students because it isn’t a traditional course. It’s more of a club. They meet Wednesday after school from 3:30 to 6 p.m., and those involved earn credits for their participation. The course started in September, but January is when the competition, or “build season,” officially begins.
First, they have to find sponsors, as the competition costs $6,000 for the entrance fee and initial robot kit. Sponsors have included Qualcom, NASA, BAE, Northrop Grumman, Kiwanis, Stoody Welding, Hamilton Sundstrand, and a host of other companies and philanthropic organizations.
Next, they receive the stipulations of the competition simultaneously with all other teams competing across the nation via live video.
Then, they build.
“The team is given the design problem, an outline of the rules for competition, a specialized, but limited, kit to build the robot, and a date for completion exactly six weeks later,” said Casalegno. “Students and mentors are expected to (and do) build a robot capable of competing successfully with other student designed and built robots throughout the nation.”
This year the requirements were to use cutting-edge technology to create a robot that would withstand battling it out with several other robots in a game called Lunacy. The robots, complete with a trailer, are placed in a rink with special, slick flooring to simulate the surface of the moon. Therefore, the designers have to plan for their robots sliding easily, and possibly crashing, which is why bumpers are necessary.
“It’s a really hard surface to work on,” said Turgeon. “But that’s what makes this whole thing fun. Everyone has the same challenge, given at the same time so everyone starts equally.”
In the rink, teams are given balls, or “moon rocks.” The object is to get as many of them as possible into your opponent’s trailer. Robots are also given “moon rocks” and can throw them into their opponents’ trailer.
Initially, the robots run on autopilot and team members can throw “moon rocks” into other team’s trailers. But, after the autonomous period, human pilots step forward to take the controls and then pilots can guide their robots as they attempt to launch the “moon rocks.” Some robots even have video cameras that track the other robots and toss “moon rocks” into their trailer.
This kind of competition takes an extreme amount of planning and preparation. The team worked Monday through Friday from 3:30 to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 1 to 8 p.m.
Their hard work paid off. Out of the 40-plus teams that compete, only 6 are given awards and this year the RUSD team took home the coveted Imagery Award.
“[It is] an award given to the one team in the regional competition who best demonstrate those qualities of gracious professionalism, cooperation, and robot support and design that highlight to the public and other teams the ideals expected of a FIRST competing team and make FIRST look good,” said Casalegno, who was extremely proud of the honor.
FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology and is the organization behind the competition. They started in 1989 to inspire young people’s interest in science and technology.
The annual robotics competition is just one of the events FIRST sponsors. This is the third year an RUSD team has competed and the third year the team has come home with an award.
“People immediately think we are just a bunch of science and math geeks, but it’s not like that at all,” said Ramona High School junior Matt Cawley. “The competitions are crazy, almost like a concert, and pretty much anyone can get involved. You don’t have to be super smart or anything. If you want to join, we’ll find a job for you.”
Cawley’s passion is evident as he speaks. He hopes to do this kind of work in his future. At the moment, he’s planning on studying mechanical engineering at San Diego State University.
Turgeon isn’t sure of his future plans yet, but he enthusiastically mentions that there are a ton of scholarships. Casalegno agrees, pointing out that, “Participation in FIRST as a member of a competing team, enables students to qualify for consideration for a large number of heavy dollar scholarships throughout the nation. One year on the team opens many doors.”
The competition is over, but the team meets until the end of the year. They will spend the time going over lessons learned and prepare for their demonstrations at the Del Mar Fair. They presented their robot, Heavy Metal Bertha, to a receptive audience at the Ramona Music Fest. They also will spend time writing letters to their sponsors who supported them and enabled them to participate. This, too, will keep the program alive.
Cawley and Turgeon stressed they need more people and encourage others to join next year. They also hope to put the word out that they’re in search of sponsors and more mentors. Currently, their mentors are mostly parents, including Walter Ainsley, Mr. Cawley, John Hujsak, Ray Klein and Mike Schedine. They say they are also hoping to recruit more programmers, math or science teachers, or members of the community who are experts in the field.
For now, they will enjoy their win and look forward to next year when they will do it all over again. For Cawley and Turgeon, it will be their fourth and final competition as both have been competing since they were freshman.
For more information about FIRST, visit tusfirst.org. To be a part of the RUSD robotics team, contact Casalegno at email@example.com.