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’They blew my mind’

St. Mary’s robotics teams roll through qualifier and into state
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Ian Cool, left, and Vanessa Lim, test out a robot Thursday they helped create with the school's robotic team at St. Mary's.

Audrey Mills was testing the strength of some scavenged servo motors, looking for the strongest.

“So far, no luck,” she said, meaning they were all falling short of her improvised grip test.

Behind her, at another table, programmers Jay Dao and Ethan Cano were struggling to figure out the origin of a mysterious error message that was preventing a component on the robot from fully rotating.

“We’re having an issue right now,” Dao said. “It just doesn’t work.”

And just outside the St. Mary’s School robotics lab in an open space plenty big enough for the arena the students have built there, two more members of the school’s robotics team, Ian Cool and Vanessa Lim, were using a Sony Playstation controller (an Xbox version was on deck) to maneuver a crate-sized robot over foam donuts that would then be fired toward fixed targets — a slit of a window and three pegs

With Cool at the controls, Team Quasar-16433’s robot rolled over three donuts and sucked them up using a conveyer belt-like mechanism, then it fired the disks about eight feet. The first two shots were right on target but the third bent sharply upward at the last moment and clanked against the wall.

“Always the third one,” Cool said.

It was trial and error, small victories, and more trial and error at the St. Mary’s robotics lab Thursday, as its two high school teams prepared for their stiffest challenge yet after both qualified for state tournaments recently. The middle school team also aced its qualifier, giving the school three state representatives. At the high school level, Team Quasar-16433 and Team Pulsar-16438 will compete May 1 in the FIRST Tech Challenge Oregon State Tournament, and at the middle school level, Minions-11725 qualified for Saturday’s FIRST Lego League Oregon State Tournament.

All the events are being held virtually this year, which will change the format of the event but not the level of commitment required.

Quasar placed third and Pulsar fifth in the qualifying tournament. Quasar also took home the Think Award and placed second for the highest honor, known as the Inspire Award. Pulsar won the Motivate Award and placed third for the Inspire Award.

The Inspire Award is given to the team that best embodies the challenge of the FIRST Tech Challenge program, and only teams that are strong ambassadors for FIRST programs are considered. FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology and is an international youth organization that holds robotics competitions.

“FIRST is really about gracious professionalism,” explained St. Mary’s robotics coordinator and STEM teacher Michele Zimmer, a former industrial engineer for Ford Motor Company who left her job as a consulting engineer to join St. Mary’s in 2018. “You’re just very helping to everyone and don’t put the competition first. They even have this word, coopertition, meaning you work with others in competition. You don’t ever let the game come before the learning and the camaraderie and the social aspect, where you’re working with others.”

FIRST tournaments are much more than one-versus-one showdowns with other schools’ robots, although that is a major part of it. Meets consist of six matches inside an arena, within which robots must perform a set of specific tasks like gathering rings or stacking blocks. Those matches, which are timed, are scored by coaches.

At the high school qualifying meet, each team also presented judges with an engineering notebook and engineering portfolio and delivered a five-minute presentation via Zoom. Team Quasar’s engineering portfolio was 15 pages long and outlined everything from the team’s outreach activities — also a requirement — to team strategy. The portfolio also covered Quasar’s engineering process, drivetrain, collection system (named Bertha), its “Shooty McShooter System,” wobble goal arm, programming progression, key achievements and lessons learned.

Every aspect of the robot poses its own unique challenges, and at least part of the success of FIRST teams is determined by how well they share the workload and capitalize on each member’s unique talents. Dao, for instance, has always been interested in programming, which is why he’s a good choice to take a crack at the notorious “not connecting to expansion hub” error that was driving he and Cano crazy Thursday. Dao, like many of his robotics teammates, is considering turning his after-school hobby into a career choice. He’ll be attending the University of Cincinnati next year to study computer science.

Putting aside the controller, Cool explained the team’s struggles with the wobble goal arm, which must pick up items and drop them outside the arena. As if that weren’t difficult enough, much of this must be performed autonomously. As the team described in its portfolio, the arm’s claw gripping system has been redesigned but couldn’t be 3-D printed in time for the qualifier. The new and improved version should be ready before state, however.

“We had already kind of agreed it wasn’t a perfect design,” Cool said. “It was a big clunky, it was kind of hard for the drivers to use. It was slow. It worked, but not in an efficient enough way that we thought we could do well so we kind of said on Monday, ‘All right, let’s turn on a new design, so Zyris went online, found some new designs, we looked at some other robots that had posted things and essentially pointed out, ‘What is wrong with our design and what can we do to fix it.’”

The solution, Lim explains, was to redesign the entire mechanism and mount it higher instead of on the drive train. Why? Because the lower you mount the arm, the longer it must be.

“So if the arm is mounted higher,” she said, “it can be shorter and it doesn’t have to extend as far out to reach the wobble goal. So we’re just going up instead of farther out.”

Zimmer said that kind of problem solving, a staple of FIRST competitions, can be partly attributed to great teamwork. Every team is different. This year’s group has meshed well from the beginning.

“These two teams are awesome this year,” she said. “They get along great, they work well together. So we’re just having a great year, a fun year. They blew my mind.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.