Robotics, but it’s people first

Elmira District Secondary School students come together to work on project, gaining all kinds of skills and experience as part of the robotics club preparing for competition

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Hayden Fretz, a Grade 12 student, has been a member of the robotics team for the two years. After graduating, he hopes to go on to study mechanical engineering.
Hayden Fretz, a Grade 12 student, has been a member of the robotics team for the two years. After graduating, he hopes to go on to study mechanical engineering. [Faisal Ali / The Observer]
It’s past 3 o’clock and school’s out for the day. But in the high school’s impressive workshops, members of the EDSS 4917 Robotics Club are welding, wiring, ratcheting and fixing up their creation to compete in the upcoming First Robotics Tournaments.

It’s crunch time for the team, as these high school students are given just six weeks to build a robot entirely from scratch – from the drawing board to the final product – and the “stop build day” is  Tuesday.

“It’s incredible,” said Hayden Fretz, a Grade 12 student in his second year with the club. “Just being able to start with nothing and work into something like you see here today.”

The team pulls in a diversity of talents from its young members to work on every aspect of the robot. From designing the machine, to building the chassis to the mechanical systems and wiring. The robot has to be programmed too, and there’s a team of students that devote themselves to the task. There’s even a team dedicated to business-side of the project: raising funds, seeking sponsorships, marketing and getting involved in community.

For Grade 9 student Phoenix Case, joining the team has been a great opportunity to pursue her passion in technology.

“When I was younger, instead of getting dolls and stuff I tried to get my parents to get me little mechanical sets and stuff like that. I’ve always liked doing that type of thing more,” she explained.

Case is on the build team, helping to put the robot together. Besides that, she’s also on the drive team that operates the robot in the actual competition itself. And, she adds, she’s also gotten into some programming as well.

“I’ve learned how to use a lot more tools, because we never had access to those types of tools,” she said about being on the team. “So it’s a lot of fun and it’s a lot of learning. I get to learn how to use a new tool and that’s kind of like an experience that I’ll keep with me and I can improve on.”

For example, Case can now weld.

“I’m pretty excited for [the tournament]. Like we’ve spent a lot of time preparing for it, and we’re getting things built – the first night we were here, we built the scale that we needed. I spent a bunch of time welding on that, and that was my first time welding. So it’s a lot of new experiences,” she said.

“Lots of us are new though. We actually had a lot of Grade 9’s that joined this year. There’s not normally this many people. And there’s actually a lot of girls that joined this year too, so that’s pretty good as well.”

Fretz, who is also on the build and drive teams, admits that the project and the time crunch can be pretty challenging.

“It’s hectic,” he admits, noting that students will come in after school, on weekends, and put in hours of work to get the robot built on time.

“And so there’s always people here and there’s always something going on. It’s busy trying to fit that into our schedule, but it’s pretty cool to see once we’re done all the work that’s gone into it. It’s definitely worth it.”

The team are still keeping their final design under wraps, but the robot will have to be able to compete in an elaborate game mixing strategy with finesse. The game includes collecting boxes, earning points and “power-ups,” operating switches and levers, and a daunting climb, where the robot has to lift its bulky frame – weighing up to 120 lbs – several feet into the air.

Phoenix Case, a Grade 9 student, and newcomer on the team. [Faisal Ali / The Observer]

There’s also a small portion of the tournament where the robot will perform these task completely autonomously. In the first 15 seconds of the game, explains Fretz, is the autonomous period – it’s like a bonus round where the points are worth extra, but the catch is the robot has to rely purely on its sensors and programming.

There’s about 40 students in the team this year, up from last year’s 30. But lead coach Ron Fletcher points out that backing the team itself is a network of teachers, coaches, mentors and sponsors that actually make the whole project possible.

“I already see it as successful. You take a look around and see what you see here tonight,” he said, motioning to the room of students working away. “This is successful, and this is why we really do it.”

For the students, certainly the experience alone is worth it. Asked if she would recommend the program, Case does not even hesitate.

“Oh, yeah, definitely. I have a bunch of friends in Grade 8 right now, and I just keep telling them, ‘join the Robotics Team next year!’”

She adds she even has homeschooled friends who are debating taking a city bus into Elmira just to get on the team.

The stop build day is this coming Tuesday, while the First Robotics Waterloo Regional Competition is scheduled late in March at the University of Waterloo. It’s a long way, and several qualifying games, to reach the world level bracket, but it’s a place they’ve been before. Just last year, the EDSS team competed at the St. Louis World Championship, finishing in the top two per cent of teams in the world.