Robotics Team Wins Local Championship
The Walls robotics team, center, after winning the FIRST Chesapeake District Championship March 12 / Credits: Simon Kirschenbaum
A season of hard work culminated in a regional win for the Walls robotics team March 11-12. Competing against 36 other teams in the DMV, Walls students were able to best build a robot that best completed three tasks: taking a small traffic cone and putting it on one of three levels, placing an inflatable cube on one of two platforms, and, without human input, driving onto and balancing on a small platform.
According to team co-captain Bianca Popa (‘23), what ultimately set the Walls robotics team ahead was their robot’s “very low center of mass” which helped the robot to balance, while “a lot of the other teams weren’t able to do that because they had a lot built up on the robot vertically.”
Robotics teams from across the DMV built one robot each that could successfully complete these tasks. At the competition, each team was given a small work area and made final touches to their robots before finally executing the tasks to the best of their ability.
Teams competed in 12 qualifying matches before joining forces with two other schools for playoffs. Walls’s victory came alongside teams from Fresta Valley Christian School and Poolesville High School.
This was far from easy, and for Walls students, necessary preparation required long daily practices led by team co-captains Popa and Simon Kirschenbaum (‘23) with coaches and science teachers Adam Vrooman and Dr. Thomas Bright. In the fall, practice consisted largely of workshops focusing on the basics of robotics, but as the competition season began, the focus shifted to the strenuous process of building the robot.
Despite this extensive preparation, the competition itself was far from smooth sailing for Walls. “We actually weren’t able to execute the design we had in mind,” Popa said. “Everyone was really stressed out because last-minute everything was beginning to go wrong and we initially planned to build something that we had to scrap altogether.”
Even with these struggles, the Walls team was able to improvise with the robot’s design and ultimately win the competition. This win was monumental for the team, which has attended a total of twenty-three competitions since its founding in 2009. “We’ve definitely placed at other competitions like this in the past, but never… this high, in terms of winning a tournament,” Mr. Vrooman said.
According to Mr. Vrooman, preparation begins at the beginning of the year when fall recruitment begins and the team does “workshops on some mechanical, electrical programming to get some familiarity” for new members. In early January, when objectives of the competition were revealed, students received a kit of parts and had six weeks to construct it, a period referred to as “build season.”
Build season is a strenuous process: “We meet every day of the week…in room 30 until 5:30 or later,” Kirschenbaum said.
Success in robotics requires funding in addition to this dedication. “Traditionally, the cost of robotics is $6,000 for rights to attend the competition and for the kit of parts,” Mr. Vrooman said. “Anything that you need to purchase outside of that — for example, this year students had to purchase a gyroscope — has to be purchased using team funds, so student meals, transportation, things of that nature are not covered.”
While funding has not been a problem in the past, the limits of Home and School Association funding and the end of a grant from Google has meant that “this year is our last year of having enough money,” according to Kirschenbaum. “I think our pool has basically run out.”
This lack of money for the program already has implications for the students. “We technically have a chance to qualify for the next round, for the district championships, but we aren’t planning on going because we don’t want to travel and I don’t know that we have the money to,” Kirschenbaum explained.
“When students advance to the next level, they generally have to pay another $4,000- 6,000 to compete,” Mr. Vrooman added. The aspiration is to get to the regional tournaments and “for students to be able to show their capacity for robotics, but beyond that, it’s practical skills that really make this STEM program so important