Wood robotics team blitzes full steam ahead
Between three different robot designs, an eye-opening project focused on Wilsonville's bee population and a slew of unanticipated mishaps and freak incidents, Wood Middle School's robotics team Full STEAM had quite the eventful First Lego League (FLL) season.
Despite adversity, the group of students persevered, making it all the way to the international Razorback Invitational in April.
They started with an impressive feat in its own right when the group of seventh- and eighth-graders finished first in their FLL regional tournament in Wilsonville, beating out some of the brightest middle school students across the Portland Metro area all the way back in December.
But the team of Kullen Whittaker (eighth grade), Sarthak Kadam (seventh grade), Camden Miller (eighth grade) and Caden Keyston (eighth grade) was just getting started. Following their dominant regional performance, they placed third at the state competition, which qualified the group of friends for the FLL Razorback Invitational in Fayetteville, Arkansas. There, they really left their mark, finishing 10th in robot performance among 68 of the world's best robotics teams.
"We've learned a lot how to work together through our past seasons and it really showed in our last performance," Miller says. "We learned a lot from other teams and just did our best to represent our school and where we come from."
The FLL competition is divided into four judged sections. The most notable portion is robot design and performance, which requires students to share their design with judges and also pre-program the robot to complete various tasks in a specified amount of time. And because the theme of this year's FLL competition was "Animal Allies," teams were also judged on a project based on a relationship between people and animals.
While many teams become complacent after experiencing some robotics success, Full STEAM decided to build a third design and iteration of their robot heading into the Razorback Invitational, but ran into a major snag when all the programming for their robot became corrupted. The USB flash drive the information was stored on malfunctioned, meaning Whittaker and Kadam had to improvise. They spent hours re-coding their robot, all from memory, the night before their plane left for Arkansas. At the last moments the team managed to pull off the seemingly impossible, and say it was just one example of how well they work together under pressure — chemistry they've built over four years of competing together.
"We each had strengths and weaknesses," Kadam says. "Kullen and I had expertise in programming and building, and Camden and Caden had strengths in speaking and researching. They also help out on the programming and building and we help out on the researching. Our strengths work together really well."
Full STEAM says their first three rounds of robot competition went OK, but that they hadn't performed up to their standards. But when a judge accidentally broke one of their robot wheels, they thought their chances for improvement were doomed. Luckily, some sportsmanship from opposing teams and some quick thinking led to a final performance Full STEAM won't soon forget.
"We were able to replace the wheel and on the fifth and final run our robot had the best run that we had had in any tournament," Keyston says. "It was the 10th best performance of the 68 teams competing from all around the world."
Full STEAM also scored well for its Animal Allies project, which counts for approximately one-fourth of a team's score and is a separate from the robotics portion of FLL. Each team was tasked with researching an animal relationship and human impact on those animals. Full STEAM identified bees as a relevant animal, concocting an idea that would help repopulate a species which is endangered.
"We chose bees as our project, and we chose bees because in Wilsonville there was one of the worst bee die-off in the U.S. (55,000 bees were killed by pesticides in 2014) and we really wanted to change the image of Wilsonville," Kadam says.
They did some initial research on the internet but decided to go straight to primary sources. They traveled to Oregon State University in Corvallis to speak with professors from their bee laboratory, and also worked with the school district's CREST (Center for Research in Environmental Sciences and Technologies) and representatives of the Wilsonville Bee Steward.
They came to a project idea that would both inform the public and provide a solution to dying bee populations — attaching wildflower seeds and bee information to certain food labels. They found that much of the public perception surrounding bees is inaccurate, and that there are many tangible ways local communities can help bees.
"Colony Collapse Disorder is one thing we found wasn't really a thing. Colony Collapse Disorder makes it feel like to the public that it's a disorder that can't be cured, when in reality there are problems that the public can tackle," Whittaker says. "One example of this is mono-cropping, which is where the bees don't have a variety of nectar sources and there aren't a variety of flower sources to feed them, especially in urban areas. That's what our project tried to tackle with wildflower seeds."
The category that Full STEAM performed best in, however, was in core values — the final category of FLL Robotics. Essentially a teamwork competition, where teams are required to complete specific tasks in front of judges, Full STEAM was scored on how creatively they could think on the spot while working as a unit. They received perfect scores at the Razorback Invitational, a nearly unprecedented feat.
"I have to give a shout-out to this team because they're coached by a couple of coaches who have no idea how to program. We don't do the work for them. If they get stuck or need help we try to point them in the right direction, but their successes are 100 percent successes of these kids," says Full STEAM coach Kathryn Whittaker. "These kids from Wood Middle School showed grit
and determination and did it themselves."
While it's only been about a month since their trip to Arkansas, the group of students say they're already looking forward to next year. Whittaker, Miller and Keyston all plan to join Team Error Code Xero — the high school robotics team of Wilsonville and West Linn high school students. Kadam says he'll compete in FIRST Tech Challenge robotics during his eighth-grade year and will then join his friends when he's a freshman at Wilsonville High.
"We'll use all the things we learned from this season and from past seasons, and take this into high school robotics," Miller says.
"We've learned a lot, and not just about robotics," Whittaker says. "Robotics teaches you that you can get in the community and really make a change."