Playtime: Explaining robotics, and how you can help local team travel to ‘Worlds’

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The Atomic Robots (Photo courtesy team’s Facebook page)

A few years ago, a neighbor from up the street told us about these amazing competitions that her son, who was part of the STEM program at Mountlake Terrace High School, took part in. She explained the stadium-type feel with cheering and fanfare typically reserved for sporting events. At the time, It was hard to picture, and now having had one of my kids compete in a robotics competition, my neighbor described it perfectly! By the end of the day-long robotics competition, the stands were full, the concession stand was picked over, and the cheering was loud.

While skimming Facebook, I came across a post in a local Moms group where Pam Brisse posted about her son Luke, a 10th grader at Edmonds Heights K-12, and his team, Atomic Robotics, going to “Worlds” next month in Houston, Texas. Brisse posted to “brag a little” about the team, which is one of only six teams from our state to advance to this level, and her son, who is the “team’s co-manager in charge of the engineering and programming side of things.”

To get some more information on just what a robotics team does and to find out what “Worlds” are, I spoke with Cathy Webb, K-12 Tech Integration Specialist at Edmonds Heights, which draws students from across the Edmonds School District. Webb not only teaches their Robotics classes, she is also a coach for Atomic Robotics. She shares coaching duties with John Courter, the team’s tech coach and a parent of a former Edmonds Heights K-12 student. I got the chance to talk to Webb, over background chatter from her school lab, about the team, its benefits and just what it takes for 10 kids, two coaches and one robot to get to Houston.

Atomic Robotics is a FTC or FIRST Tech Challenge Team. FTC teams are aimed at those from 7th to 12th grade. As I found out with my son’s team, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competitions are much more than robot building. The group, founded in 1989, aims to “inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology.” Webb explained that the team reached this level after wins at “Interleague” and “State” then after a good showing at “Super Regionals,” the team was invited to compete at the FIRST Championship in Houston next month, otherwise known at “Worlds” as international teams compete. These teams are far more than “just building robots.” Many different skills are involved in being on a robotics team. Competitions require marketing, programming, community outreach, mentoring, and more.

Team members “develop a multitude of skills and develop the skills on their own,” Webb said, leading into a story about a team member who joined Atomic Robotics intending to work on robot programming. Instead, he ended up focusing on the production of the video they use to market the team and do community outreach. Being able to explore all the different facets of a team allowed this team member to “find out he loved” a different thing and has since been accepted to Seattle Film Institute.

On top of broadening horizons and gaining translatable life skills, Webb says the students get opportunities for “exposure” and professional “input” on their projects. Atomic Robots has done so by presenting their projects to Boeing, Microsoft, and Disney.

The team competing at the Washington state championships in 2015.

The other reason Brisse posted about her son’s team was to generate donations. Webb told me that it will take $16,000 to get the team to the competition. The robot they’ve been using weighed 85 pounds, but Webb says they are building a new robot for this competition. Since posting their GoFundMe page — currently at $1,400 — the team announced that two anonymous donors have offered a match if the donations reach $3,000: “If we can raise $3,000.00, it will become $9,000.00!” If you’d like to help Atomic Robotics, you can do so by clicking HERE.

So how does your child get involved in robotics locally? Webb told me that each local high school has a FRC robotics team. They are like the Atomic Robotics FTC team, but the age range is smaller, allowing only for those at the high school level. On the lower levels, where my son competed, I’ve seen FLL, FIRST Lego League, teams formed at school, but also was particularly pumped up about a local Girl Scout Troop forming a team and advancing past the first level of competition. You can find out more about bringing a team to your school at FirstInspires.org.

Of the many LEGO engineering camps at the Frances Anderson Center this summer, two are specifically robotics based. “Robotics Using LEGO WeDo” for grades 2-4 is an introductory robotics class where kids will learn “basic programming skills, simple engineering concepts, and the names of robot components.” This class is a “ great way to prepare young Robotics enthusiasts for our more advanced Robotics programs.”

Those in grades 5-8 can sign up for “Robotics Using LEGO EV3.” Students can build and program robots using the LEGO® Mindstorms EV3 system” which is what the FIRST LEGO League competitors use. Students will use “mechanical and software design” as they work in small groups to program and build their robot to “avoid obstacles, pick up and carry objects, and play sounds.” For more details on either class, you can check out EdmondsCamps.org or call Edmonds Parks and Recreation at 425-771-0230.

— By Jennifer Marx

Jen Marx

Jen Marx, an Edmonds mom of two young boys, is always looking for a fun place to take the kids that makes them tired enough to go to bed on time. You can find her on Twitter trying to make sense of begging kids to ” just eat the mac n cheese” @jen_marx.

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