Tuesday, April 24, 2012

4001: A Robotic Odyssey

I and others have written several times in the past about the FIRST Robotics competition. Through a highly charged and professionally produced competitive framework, teams of high school students from a growing number of countries converge in regional tournaments to demonstrate their engineering excellence.

Although Quanser has supported competitions in the past, this was the first year that we sponsored and mentored our own team. That team was 4001 (the official team identification number designated by the FIRST organization), also known as the Retro Rams, also known as St. Robert High School of Thornhill, Ontario. I’m happy to report that the team far exceeded everyone’s expectations, and we’re all still catching our breaths.
Members of Team 4001 follow their robot as it takes on all challengers.
On March 30th and 31st, our Rams competed in the Greater Toronto West Regional tournament. This year 52 teams from around Canada, the US, and Mexico competed in one of the largest regional tournaments in the FIRST roster. The Rams are classified as a “rookie” team indicating that this was there first year of competition. Spoiler alert: they won.

The concept of winning has multiple meanings within the FIRST context and the Rams won in all senses.

They won the Rookie All Star Award.
A select team of engineering community leaders are recruited as expert judges to identify teams of exceptional and exemplary character and embodiment of what FIRST refers to as “Gracious Professionalism” – the notion that engineering excellence encompasses technical achievement and true leadership within the community and in their interaction with other teams. The Rookie All Star Award is the most prestigious award for first year teams and celebrates the team’s success in bringing students, teachers, community, and industry together to learn about engineering and to succeed in engineering.

They won on the field.
FIRST is unique in that the field competition always involves alliances of three separate teams. In the initial qualifying rounds, the alliances are selected at random. In the playoffs, the top 8 teams (based on a fairly sophisticated points scheme) hand pick their desired alliance partners for the playoff rounds. Among the top 8 were one of the best teams anywhere, 2056, OP Robotics of Governor Simcoe High School in St. Catharines, Ontario and they selected the Rams as their first choice as a playoff alliance partner. A rookie team being chosen first is very rare and to be chosen by a perennial powerhouse team is even rarer.

A spectacular Triple Balance, brought to you by Team 4001, the St. Robert High School
Retro Rams. To catch more of the action, click here.
The design was exceptional.
Design is a wonderfully ethereal concept celebrated by the engineering profession and encompasses far more than the fanciest machine. Design is the discipline of making intelligent choices to optimally achieve key functional goals and sometimes the best designs are the most focused and simple. Most rookie teams bolt every last thing on their robot in a desperate attempt to do as much as possible. The Rams focused at being small and robust, maximizing their chance to be chosen by a senior team. This year, there was a unique element in the game that required robots to balance on a single fulcrum bridge. Many can balance one. Some can do two. Only the most innovative trio of robots can do three. This year the Rams became that “King Maker” that facilitates consistent triple balances and this allowed the final alliance to win on the field.
Team 4001 consists of over 50 students who gained valuable experience in
dealing with complex, multidimensional, real-world challenges.
The students became true professionals.
In many ways this is the most important win. Over 50 students joined the team with little or no experience in FIRST, robotics, engineering, or anything more complex than your typical teenage endeavor. Through commitment, positive attitude, and plenty of basic smarts, they engineered a complex organization of technical teams, business teams, outreach teams, and more. They learned what it takes to take on ambitious multidimensional challenges in the real world.

Quanser won
This was the first time that any of us had mentored a FIRST team. I had been part of the judging community for years but I had never had a direct connection to a specific team. The rewards for us was the satisfaction of seeing our modest input have such a profound impact. The best thing was that we really did not do much. We helped them clarify their goals, offer them basic advice on how to navigate all the different paths ahead of them, and then we stood back and let the team do its thing. In many ways, our doing so little meant that that little bit that we did do was incredibly important. To all you Quanser mentors with young families, take note.
Quanser's Director of Engineering Paul Karam and Systems Control Manager Cameron Fulford are
just two of the Quanser engineers who did some early mentoring of Team 4001.
I have a fundamental belief on topics of education. If you start with bright, motivated kids, you can achieve the impossible and our educational strategy should take advantage of that. Sometimes I wonder whether we do too much to massage the learning environment to make it more “suitable” for them. This year’s FIRST odyssey reaffirmed that if you have ambition, are willing to work hard, and work closely with your peers, magic can happen. Thank you 4001 for providing us this valuable life lesson.
- Tom Lee

As Chief Education Officer at Quanser, Tom Lee is focused on spearheading the development of Quanser's global academic community. He is closely involved with Quanser's technology and solution development process and the company's partner and alliance programs. He holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and an MASc and BASc in Systems Design Engineering from the University of Waterloo.

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