PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. -- Instead of the sleek athletes in uniforms that one might expect on the floor of a high school gymnasium, the space is occupied instead by a colorful, high-tech gaming structure, designed to challenge frenetic, student-built robots to rack up competitive points.
The scene at a recent robotics tournament at Mount Olive High School in northern New Jersey, where numerous teams and cheering fans converged, represents a new vision of high school competition, where the mental agility of students and a host of other traits are nurtured for long-term results.
The overarching goal of such robotics competitions is to encourage student to pursue technical fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly known as STEM. Promoting STEM extends to other grades beyond high school and takes a number of forms and activities
The largest organization at Picatinny Arsenal, the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) Armaments Center, has for years been deeply immersed in promoting and encouraging STEM among students of all ages. The Armaments Center predominantly consists of civilian employees, many engaged in a range of engineering and technical duties.
By the nature of its mission, the Armaments Center has recognized the need for a well-educated workforce that can tackle challenging projects well into the future. Moreover, its bountiful supply of engineers and scientists provides the volunteer mentors and advisors who guide and assist students as they take interest in acquiring technical skills.
Such endeavors can range from student teams who use catapults to hurl pumpkins the farthest distance, to showing pre-school students the science behind preparing food. Sponsorship and mentoring on behalf of Picatinny Arsenal is coordinated by the Picatinny STEM Office.
“STEM is very important to us,” said Anthony J. Sebasto, a senior executive at the Armaments Center, during the opening of the recent robotics competition at Mount Olive High School. “It’s important for us as a nation to have people to go into the sciences…to be able to take advantage of the ever-growing cast of technologies and new ideas and new innovations that are coming down the road of the future.”
Sebasto, at the time of his talk, was the head of the Enterprise and Systems Integration Center, one of three major organizations within the Armaments Center, of which Sebasto is currently Acting Director. The center and its parent command, DEVCOM, are elements of the Army Futures Command.
“Picatinny Arsenal has been a sponsor of FIRST Robotics teams for a little over a decade, today for high schools,” said Sebasto. “We sponsor probably over 50 teams. In all grades, Picatinny Arsenal is a sponsor of over 100 FIRST robotics teams.”
Nationally, the leading organization for student robotics competition is FIRST, which means “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” Founded by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, FIRST hosts competitions from local to international levels.
Student teams design, build and program their robots to compete against other teams. They must develop strategies for scoring points and apply durable engineering principles in building their robots.
In past competitions, robots have performed tasks such as placing inner tubes onto racks and balancing robots on balance beams. Each year, there is a different game with its required tasks.
Rapid React, presented by Boeing, was the game challenging teams at the Mount Olive competition. To earn points, robots must toss “cargo” (oversized tennis balls, 9.5” inches in diameter), into lower and upper hubs at the center of the “tarmac,” then return to a “hangar” to climb four levels of rungs.
The rounds of competition are brisk. Student teams are constantly threading carts with their stoic robotic passengers onto and off the “tarmac” to keep pace with the tight tournament timeline. When not competing on the gym floor, teams can withdraw to their assigned areas to diagnose problems, make adjustments, or just wind down after a round in the tense competitive spotlight.
For some students, robotics is a natural extension of other interests. “I’m a mechanical person, I like to work on cars, so I kind of just fell into it,” said Colin McCann, a student at Easton Area High School in Pennsylvania.
Ricardo Olmos from Dover High School in New Jersey wanted to focus his high school years on subjects that appealed to him. “In my sophomore year, they opened a new robotics team and I decided to join,” he said. “I have an interest in robotics and engineering.”
Olmos also saw robotics as a path to a career as a mechanical engineer. “I do robot building mostly, but I also do some electrical work with the gear boxes,” said Olmos, who also noted the benefit of learning to use Computer Aided Design software.
For any students thinking of getting involved with a robotics team, McCann advises joining at least a few weeks before the season starts. “You need some time so that you get to know who everybody is, what’s going on, what the rules are, and how the whole thing works,” he said “It’s not something that you can just jump in and start wrenching on things right away.”
Erin Brooks, a teacher-mentor at Dover High School, said students can gravitate to areas of robotics where they may have the most interest. “We have students who are mechanically minded, we have people who prefer to do coding, and we have people who like work on the electronics.”
Brooks noted that robotics teams also present opportunities for students who aren’t necessarily inclined to work directly with the robots, but could contribute in other ways, such as graphic design.
“We’re trying to get more ‘artsy’ people involved, but they hear the word ‘robotics’ and think, ‘Oh, that’s not art.’ But we need them. We want to do advertising to attract sponsors. We want to put together pamphlets, to make videos of our robots. We want to do ‘artsy' things. We just don’t have people now who are interested in it.”
Kristi Clements, a teacher-mentor with the team from Easton, said that the student autonomy and responsibility--the foundation of robotics competition--will help to instill personal growth and development. “There is so much that they get out of it,” she said. “I think it’s because it is student-driven, student-led. They are in charge. We are just here to offer resources when they need them.
“Even the business team, they’re in charge of the finances. They’re the accountants. They have to keep the books and manage the budget,” Clements added.
Beyond interactions with students on their own teams, students also develop social skills by mingling with other teams to forge alliances that compete against other teams.
On another level, the ethos of FIRST robotics also seeks to tamp down any adolescent impulses of cut-throat attitudes towards opponents, rejecting any prideful strutting or urges to belittle vanquished teams.
McCann, from the Easton robotics teams, describes the nature of interactions among teams.
“There are a lot of older teams that will come and help you,” he said. “In FIRST, they have the concept of gracious professionalism. It extends to a situation where if we break a motor, or we run out of spare parts, we can go over to the other side and say, ‘Hey, do you have a motor?’ If they have it they will give it to us. Or, if you are having a problem with your motor controllers and they aren’t working, they will just come over and help. Someone who knows more is willing to spend time to help you.”
Clements noted that, with the inevitable setbacks and advances that can occur within the context of robotics competition, students can start to ground themselves for the mix of experiences they will encounter later on in life.
“They get the experience that we all need—that nobody likes—when things are going horribly wrong and learning to deal with it, picking up and rebuilding.”
During his opening remarks at the Mount Olive tournament, Sebasto, the Army executive, sought to underscore the longer-lasting significance for students amid the immediate undercurrent of a pressing, competitive drive.
“I know everybody wants to win the prize today, but remember you all came together, you worked together as teams--which is very important,” he said. “You’ve probably made new friends, you’ve taken advantage of the skills that all of your team members have, to have the best robot out here in the competition area. Whether you win or lose it’s not important.
“What’s important is the experience you have working together as a team, bringing the skill sets of all your team members together, taking advice from your mentors, your teachers, and how to make your robots better.
“At the same time, please look at the other robots. It’s not just what you put together, but take a look at what others did and learn from it.”