Working with Team Prion

·         Getting started as a team mentor for FIRST Robotics

In 2007 I started working with a FIRST Lego League(FLL) team at Fort Meade Middle school. This was a really wonderful introductory learning experience for the FIRST programs and I was hooked. The memory that vibrantly sticks out in my mind is a non-technical team orientated one: the FLL team was meeting on a Saturday before the competition. We had the students bring in money for pizza and when lunch rolled around I went out and picked up the pizza. The team met in a technology education (tech-ed) classroom with work tables that could be accessed from all 4 sides. We set 3 pizzas’ down on one of these tables and the students descended in one motion from all sides and then scurried off leaving completely empty pizza boxes. The scene was like a real life version of cartoon piranhas on a ham bone. The same year I decided to return full time for a Masters degree and was disappointed that I wasn't able to continue working with that program.


In the fall of 2009, I asked around about opportunities to work with FIRST teams and Team Prion was getting started in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) and needed help. The 2010 FRC season was my "rookie" FRC year along with the rest of the team and I worked with the team as the electrical and programming mentor. I spent a mountain of time learning the control system by reading through hundreds of pages of documentation. By the end of the 6 week build season we had a soccer playing robot that high school students built and programmed! This robot, rookieBot, lives under my desk in the off season and ventures around work from time to time...


The second year I spent a lot of time recruiting mentor help from around work, developing student and mentor training in the fall and moving into a lead technical mentor role for the team. The extra help was greatly appreciated and the team was able to tackle several new area's including autonomous functions and self-leveling manipulator arms. This past year I worked as the lead technical mentor and project manager for the team.

·        The 2012 team. This past year was absolutely the best yet! The programming team spent the fall training with Labview on the Lego Mindstorm kits. The training worked out splendidly and all 8, (5 rookies!) of the programmers were able to contribute, to some degree, on the final robot. Our robot was fully functional every single match, contributed significantly to the alliances we were paired with and scored in autonomous mode!

·         Motivation to continue to devote time mentoring a FIRST team and what is involved I was first introduced to programming in the 4th(10years old) and 5th(11) grade at a Lego summer camp. In the 6th(11-12) grade I wrote a BASIC program for the science fair. From the 7th grade until I went off to engineering school there were not any local programs to continue growing technically. My primary goal and motivation is to fill in these gaps and provide the kinesthetic, technical mentoring and growth opportunities, which I wish I had, for students today. 


I always thought of volunteering as picking up road side trash and working in soup kitchens, worthwhile causes but not something I was going to spend my time doing. At a previous job a call went out to work with a Lego robotics team and everything I thought about volunteering changed immediately. Here was an opportunity to make a difference doing something that I really enjoyed. 


My first year working with the FRC robot I figured it was an opportunity to play with big, expensive toys and hopefully inspire the next generation of engineers in the process. That's pretty much how things worked out and I had a great time even though it was a nearly a full time second job. For all of the negative things I hear about this generation of students the students I've worked with on the team provide a completely different, positive perspective. There are some really great students heading into engineering school!


The motivation has grown and evolved over the seasons. The first season it was to foster the future generations of engineers and play with cool toys. The second season it was to do the same but what I didn't expect was to gain valuable project management experience. I was working with 5 students and 6(!) mentors on the programming team and I learned that you can't "wing it" when leading a technically capable group. Instead you have to actually properly plan in advance and distribute the work effectively.


This past year all of the previous motivations still applied AND I realized that working with the team helps identify really spectacular co-op candidates. Our site had our first co-op from the robotics team pipeline this past spring! Additionally, I have a much better understanding of industrial control systems and how to work with the various sensors on the robot. The commitment involved is tremendous (10-20 hrs/wk during build season), but at the end of the build season you've BUILT A SERIOUS ROBOT and made a bunch of friends.

·         Specific engineering skills the team members gained from their participation in the FIRST Robotics competition and thoughts about more intangible skills gained. The students learned where the math they have learned in class can be applied to predict and detect various motions. They learn basics about voltage and current, how to properly wire systems and how to solder. The students learn about signal converters working with analog inputs and PWM outputs. The students learned how a camera image is formed and how to do vision processing and that electronics work WAY faster than humans. In the fall training we taught the students about the essential programming concepts like variables, loops, conditional logic and worked up to finite state machines making a sound controlled robot. Demonstrating PID control systems I was able to introduce integrals and derivatives to 9th graders without telling them they were doing calculus until after they understood the concept. The effort conveyed that math can have scary names and notations but the underlying concepts (summing up area units and dividing by the number of units = integral) have simple roots. 


The students are learning problem solving skills and most importantly that design is an iterative process with many right answers. I mentioned identifying exceptional students already... There is a 9th grader on the team who I showed how a converter processed a sine wave and what the output of an analog rotary encoder looked like. A day later he had written a zero crossing frequency detector from scratch! 


·         The robot that was built by our team  The FRC robots share a common control system, allowed motors and gearboxes and batteries. Beyond these items the robots are a completely custom rapid prototype. This year’s robot featured a camera to locate and range the backboards, code written by a mentor and the only high school senior on the programming team. The location information was then used to line the robot up with the most appropriate target using the ADXRS652BBGZ-RL to turn to a fixed angle by integrating the degrees/second. The ranging information was put through a projectile motion physics equation to determine the proper rotational speed of the shooting mechanism. The rotational speed was controlled with a PID controller and the robot used an automated conveyor system to pick up and move the game pieces from the floor to a shooting mechanism. The conveyor system, programmed entirely by a 9th grader, featured a state machine that would re-arrange the game pieces so there weren't gaps between. The robot also featured a software switch that changed the “forward” direction to make driving easier.

·        The 2012 'basketball' task that the robots were required to do The robots played 3 versus 3 basketball where there were 4 goals in a diamond configuration and there were 3 bridges dividing the field in the middle for the robots to balance on at the end of the game. The top goal was worth 3 points, 2 middle were 2 points and the lower goal was worth a single point. Each goal had retro-reflective tape (think safety vest reflectors) as the backboard target for the camera's to lock onto. Defense was allowed and several of this year’s rookie teams made really great showings with simple, but effective, defensive designs. The first 15 seconds of the match the robots were on their own to score and ours was able to make a basket. The next 2 minutes are spent with two human drivers in control gathering game pieces and scoring baskets and then a final 15 seconds balancing on bridges in the middle of the field.  Our robot was designed for rollover survival and this extra design effort was greatly appreciated when our robot fell, or was pushed, off the bridge TWICE! The mechanical department did a really great job and the robot wasn't affected by 150lbs of robot landing wrong side up.

·        FIRST organization and their mission of inspiring young people to become science and technology leaders. 

FIRST = For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. I have several very intelligent and creative students that I have worked with who are now in engineering schools who probably would have been medical doctors, lawyers or bankers if it weren't for the FIRST programs. These students tell me that before they participated in the program they really didn't know what an engineer did, but now they are off to get a computer science or EE degree. There are extremely intelligent individuals everywhere and I thoroughly enjoy teaching these students the concepts that they will use to do amazing things both now and in the future. To see the level of creativity and engineering displayed at a FRC tournament is truly inspiring and I'm very proud to be making my own contribution to the effort.