Math teacher Sufyan Shahin couldn’t be prouder! In his fifth year as coach, he’s watched the team struggle, but persist. Some years, successful competition was measured by placing second to last rather than at the bottom. But this year has been different. “Monumental,” in Shahin’s words. And the team’s 40 students have plenty to celebrate.
So, how did they do it?
Gracious professionalism, Coopertition, and a well-built, well-driven, well-programmed robot.
The terms “gracious professionalism” and “coopertition” are terms coined by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), the non-profit that has been developing games and organizing the worldwide competitions for robotics teams since 1989.
“Gracious professionalism” appears in competitions as selfless, encouraging interactions with each other and with other teams. Shahin describes it as, “That idea that we can one moment be on opposite sides, and the very next moment be helping each other out.”
“Coopertition” is the blend of cooperation and competition that makes the game as much fun as possible by working together. It’s the spirit that drives opposing teams to share parts and tools and even robot-building skills.
FIRST’s mission is to instill in young people, from Kindergarten through 12th grade, the values of kindness and integrity and the importance of respectful innovation in the pursuit of STEM studies. For the 2016-2017 school year, FIRST events numbered more than 2,600 around the globe and included over 460,000 students.
And what a year it has been! Just ask seniors Allie Kester and Vincent DeSarno, co-presidents of this year’s team. “This year has been amazing,” Kester said. “I just love the enthusiasm. I’ve seen this team grow in the four years that I’ve been here. [Every year], we start with freshmen who don’t know what they’re doing and by the end of the season they’re telling their younger brothers and sisters ‘you should join robotics when you get here.’ It’s a learning experience, but it’s more like a family.”
DeSarno remembers the team meeting after the second district competition when it was clear they were going to States. “We discussed all the firsts that we had this year and all the firsts that we wanted [the team] to accomplish next year—but a lot of them, we did already. Win a blue banner. Get to Worlds. Win any event at all. We did a ton of it. It’s an amazing way to end senior year.”
The Holly Springs High School Robotics Team, officially named Hawktimus Prime, is student-run with parent mentors providing guidance in such areas as financials, fundraising, mechanics, programming, and technology. But Shahin makes it clear that the students have the final say in how things are done. Kester handles the administrative side of team business (media, spirit, sponsorships, and outreach) while DeSarno takes care of technical components on the build side (field elements, the robot’s chassis, wiring, and programming).
Hawktimus Prime meets weekly from September to January as teammates get to know one another and work on projects to help prepare the newer team members for “build season,” which runs from January to May. Meetings and work sessions increase to six days a week with the January release of the game that illustrates to teams what capabilities to incorporate into their robot.
Every year, the FIRST game has a different theme. This year’s game simulated preparing airships for travel through supplying fuel for steam power, installing gears to turn rotors, and climbing aboard the ship. To score points, a robot must spend fifteen seconds operating without human interaction, demonstrating the pre-programmed ability to enter a playing field the size of a basketball court, deliver gears to a ship, and add fuel in the form of tennis balls to one of two bowl-shaped goals designed to be boilers. For the next two minutes and fifteen seconds, team drivers control their robots and continue to accumulate points before exhibiting climbing skills to board their ship.
In a competition, three individual teams form an alliance of three robots and compete against another alliance. The alliance that scores the most points wins that match. Each game lasts two and half minutes, but as Shahin explains, “The game completely changes depending on how people build their robot. A lot of teams build the robot to deliver gears and get rotors spinning.” Kester adds, “Ours specializes in gears and climbing.”
After the game details were released, Hawktimus Prime had six weeks to prepare their robot. Shahin remarked, “Usually, we finish the last day. We’re here until midnight finishing the robot. This year, with organization and mentors to help with that progression, we were done within four and a half weeks.
“Competitions are three days,” DeSarno explains. “The first day, you set up. The second day are qualification matches and that determines your ranking based on how many wins you get. In the middle of the third day, you finish your qualifiers and that’s your ranking. The top eight teams pick two other robots to compete with in the playoffs.”
At a competition like the recent State Championship where 32 teams made up the field, there were 65 qualifier matches and every team played at least 12 games. Teams that progressed to the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds played 20 games.
DeSarno says, “You get ranking points for each competition. They’re added together and that’s your state ranking. You have to be in the top 32 to make it to the state competition.” The top fifteen teams in North Carolina, including the six teams that won the State Championship, earned slots at the World Championship.
That’s not the only way to get there, however. A team can also win one of three coveted FIRST awards. “The Chairman’s Award,” Shahin says, “shows your progression over the years as a team.
What you’ve done to follow the inspiration of FIRST and be gracious professionals. It’s their highest award—higher than winning the competition.” DeSarno adds, “The Engineering Inspiration award is exemplifying one part of your robot and how it has led to innovation in engineering. And they do the Rookie All-Star [award.] So, the best rookie in the district goes to Worlds.”
The Road to Houston
“At the end of our first competition,” DeSarno recalls, “we were ranked mid-forties in the state. At the end of our second competition, we were ranked around twenty-fifth. Then [FIRST] gave out the awards and that gives teams extra district points. So we were unsure whether we would make it to States or not. It was a nail-biter.”
Shahin continues, “We made it to States. Our minds were blown so we started scrambling. We didn’t expect to do this well so we didn’t plan on going to Worlds, [but] everybody who wants to go can hopefully go. It’s three to four days off from school, right before AP exams and toward the end of the semester, which can be hard for some students.”
In Houston, there will be at least 400 teams playing simultaneously on six fields, with about 90 teams per field. According to DeSarno, “The first two days, you do qualifications and alliance picking. Then the winner of your field gets to play on the ‘Einstein’ field where the winners go to battle it out for Champion.”
A Winning Season
For students and coach alike, there are so many things to love about being a part of the Holly Springs High School Robotics Team. Kester says, “What I love most is definitely the ‘coopertition.’ You go to competition and make friends, maybe on the opposite alliance. We even mentor a rookie team. [At States], teams that were not in the match because they had lost earlier that day, were cheering us on.”
DeSarno, the team’s robot driver, describes himself as mechanically-minded and competitive. He favors the design and engineering aspects, especially “getting the younger [team members] interested in engineering. It’s nice working with the other teams and being in that competitive setting. I love driving the robot.”
From Shahin’s perspective, the program is exceptional for its emphasis on coopertition and gracious professionalism. “It builds spirit and understanding and that’s what we want out of scientists. Not competing to be the best scientist. Cooperating to make things work, and understanding that the competition in science helps us improve and become better.”
Whether or not Holly Springs High School brings home the World Championship remains to be seen, but this robotics team has set the bar high. To measure up, future teams must at least complete their robot before the deadline, have time to test and make improvements before competing, and build a robot that survives every match without major repairs. They will also have to do better than being a top-five qualifier, a playoff team captain, and State Champions. And who knows, next year’s ultimate goal might be to win another World Championship.