by Jon Shoulders //  photography by April Knox
Robotics teams are up and running throughout the southside

When Daniel Schieber’s junior high school science teacher showed his class a video of a robotics competition back in 2015, he knew there was no turning back.

Daniel had never seen footage of such competitions. They’re events during which teams of high school-age kids build their own robots that must perform specific, predetermined tasks. He knew being part of such a team would be a chance for him and his classmates to gain hands-on, real-life knowledge about many of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) concepts they were learning about in the classroom exclusively in the abstract.

“My classmate, Hannah Reid, and I worked hard recruiting kids and a space to work in. By my senior year we were competing. I knew it would be a whole new ballgame from sitting in class learning about math, science and that kind of stuff,” Daniel says. “My teacher, Dr. Hogan, had experience with robotics clubs in California where he taught before, and there are some other teams here on the southside so I felt strongly that we should have one.”

It’s not just a southside thing; robotics teams continue to crop up statewide, and there are currently six on Indy’s southside, 63 in Indiana and approximately 3,000 throughout the U.S. competing each year under the umbrella of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), a nonprofit founded in 1989 to promote STEM-related education and programs for kids of all ages.

Each January, FIRST officials announce their annual Robotics Competition theme for kids in Grades 9 through 12, and each team must design, build and program a robot within a specific time frame capable of completing a particular set of tasks on a special playing field. Teams in more than 30 countries participate in the competition, which starts with district matches followed by state competitions in the U.S. and culminates in a four-day FIRST world championship in April. Younger kids can participate in FIRST LEGO leagues and a FIRST Tech Challenge for Grades 7 through 12.

The 2019 FIRST Robotics Competition theme was “Destination: Deep Space.” Each team’s robot was required to place rubber balls and polycarbonate discs on mock rockets and cargo ships to earn points before climbing a three-level platform at the end of the match for additional points.

While each team looks forward eagerly to the annual FIRST competitions, ultimately it’s the skills they learn while working with each other in preparation — both inside and outside their work space — that make the endeavor unique. Daniel’s mother, Theresa, and father, Mike, quickly came to this realization after becoming team mentors when Daniel and Hannah co-founded the Wired Warriors four years ago.

“They learn a lot of engineering — project management, forces and stresses, and working with hand and power tools — but they also learn everything about actually running a business,” explains Theresa, who continues to serve as a team mentor with her husband. “The school doesn’t support us financially, so the kids do marketing, finance and fundraising. It takes $10,000 to $20,000 a year to compete, depending on how far you get, with room and board for the kids, food and entry fees. So the kids are working hard on a lot of different things beyond building.”

A different kind of competition
Spend enough time at a robotics competition and you’ll almost certainly observe what FIRST leaders call “coopertition”; it’s a concept that every robotics team comes to know quite well, and one that teens might not find in many other extracurricular high school activities.

“It is a competition, but the teams are cooperating a lot with each other, so that’s where the word ‘coopertition’ comes from, and FIRST tries to really emphasize it,” Theresa says. “If one group’s robot is down or they need a part during these competitions, that group will have four or five kids from another team helping them out. They build a lot of friendships that way.”
Even in the off-season FIRST robotics team participants are typically hard at work prepping their work spaces, troubleshooting their previous season’s robot to learn from any competition missteps and raising funds. Zach Dyer, a junior at Indian Creek High School and a member of the MECHAlosaurs robotics team since his freshman year, says working to generate funds has taught him a few valuable life lessons.

“In the summer we work a lot on fundraising, and one thing the team has helped me with is talking on the phone, communicating better and improving my people skills,” Zach says. “Having to get on the phone and express what we’re all about and ask people if they can help us, that’s pretty important stuff.”

Zach says the MECHAlosaurs, like many of their fellow robotics teams, breaks down into two groups: a mechanical group, which handles the initial robot construction, including the frame and motor system, and an electronics group, which subsequently adds the necessary wiring and controller that connects to a computer software program telling the robot exactly what to do.

“It’s good because we do have team members focusing on certain tasks, but everyone helps with a lot of things and gets a taste of the whole process by the time we have to be done with the robot and ready to compete,” Zach says.

STEMs from here
After four years of observation as a team mentor, Theresa says the benefits of being involved with a structured robotics group go far beyond mere exposure to STEM concepts for each kid.
“We’ve had kids come in who have been socially awkward, or who have a behavioral issue and just don’t feel they fit in, and many will find a spot and get involved, and find that they fit in here,” she says. “Not only that, but Mike and I have kids every year telling us that if it weren’t for this program they might not have gone to college and definitely would not have considered engineering, but now they are. That’s why we stick around and do this.”

Now in his junior year as a mechanical engineering student at the University of Dayton, Daniel continues to attend Wired Warriors meetings in the summers and lend a hand wherever needed for the team that he helped found and that helped to fuel the spark of his lifelong interest in engineering and technology.

“My dad’s an engineer and I was into science before we started the team, but working with other students on the challenges of robotics elevated that interest,” he says. “I’m thankful we were able to do it, and I try to come back and help now because I know there are probably students in the same boat as I was.”

For more information on FIRST, including a searchable list of robotics teams and events, visit firstinspires.org.