UA’s FIRST Robotics team enters its second year after remarkable initial success

By Journalism I student Ben Rigney-Carroll

Everyone was screaming,” said junior Audrey Strickling, as she described the scene when her team of UAHS Bear Bots was announced as the winner of the Rookie All Star Award last year, sending her first-year team to compete at world’s.

Eighteen months ago, Strickling took the first step in establishing UAHS’s FIRST Robotics program, an organization that runs video-game like 3 vs. 3 robotics competitions. Since then  Strickling has taken robotics in UA from an after-school club to a district-wide, nationally-recognized program.

When Strickling first attempted to get the program off the ground two summers ago, she started from scratch. “I pretty much dedicated my whole summer to it,” she said.

The team was a long way from competing, but there was already a great deal of work to be done. Strickling spent her summer garnering support to build the team that fall. First she had to find a teacher to act as the club’s mentor, and to sign off on the project. After being turned away by a number of teachers she found Angela Hattman, then a first-year biology teacher at UAHS. After finding a mentor, Strickling began pursuing grants to fund the team and the construction of its robots.

“We had to apply for a lot of grants,” Strickling said. “The Education Foundation helped us a lot. As well as NASA.”

With money from various organizations, as well as some support from the district, she began to recruit members. Because she wanted to start small and assure the group was focused on getting things off the ground. Strickling decided to form her her first team with student members by invitation only. members the first season. Once there were enough interested students to fill all the necessary jobs, the team had 21 people committed to membership.

The team met regularly through the fall, continuing to gather funding and to begin the learning curve of working together as they approached January, the start of build season. The program the team competes in, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics, holds what’s called a kick-off event in early January. Kick-off is a gathering of all teams in the local area, meeting to watch the live announcement about the specifics and rules of this year’s competition.

“You learn what the challenge is at the beginning of the six weeks on an event called Kick Off,” she said. “You get a 130-page packet of rules and you kind of figure it out from there: what you want to build and stuff like that.”

One of the major components of each year’s unique rules, is the specifics for the given year’s competition. Every year the game that is played is different. Although there are always certain staples to the way the game is run, such as robots lifting, moving, and placing objects, much of the way the game is played varies year to year with the introduction and removal of objectives and ways to score.

“So in our first year there was a challenge based off of a retro video game. What we had to do was pick up power cubes to stack a vault that was pretty much a power up in a video game,” Strickling said. “When you collect enough you get a boost of points.”

Though it was the UA Bear Bots first year as a team, by the end of the non stop hussle of the six-week build season, they made large gains for their image and the program as whole with their achievements. Chief among them was the winning of the Rookie All-Star Award, Strickling explained.

“The Rookie All Star award is given to first-year teams—like we were—and it is given for the team they see with most potential. And there were over 12 other first year teams at our regional competition that we beat out for that award. “

After receiving the award, the team qualified for world’s an event held in Detroit MI. At the event there were over teams from 27 different nations, many of speaking a mix of different languages. Estimates for attendance of the event come in somewhere above 40,000, a mix of both participants and spectators. “It was insane.” said Strickling.

Looking to the future, Strickling and her team have lofty goals for the program. Looking past the success of their first year, the team hopes to attend and find success at smaller competitions throughout the year, culminating in a hopeful second shot at world’s.

Goals for the team are to keep competing, keep pushing towards worlds,” Strickling said. “Start winning some more awards.”

Besides their aspirations to compete and win awards in competitions, Strickling and the team is also working to establishing a district wide robotics program in UA. If all goes according to plan, the end of this year should see all 5 elementary schools and both middle schools with robotics junior versions of the FIRST robotics program as well. “A really big project that we just got approval and funding for is that we are starting five teams in the elementary schools for FIRST Lego League which is the junior level of FIRST robotics.  So there is a progression, kind of like a sport.”

This idea of access to a robotics program from young age will bring robotics to a great number of UA students. Laying the groundwork for future UA Bear Bots, this program will provide the oldest and most invested members of the team a role as mentors and teachers to the teams next generation, fostering creativity and leadership qualities. Off to a great start, there seems to be no telling what the Bear Bots will accomplish next.