York seniors Trent Jones, Kyler Kerner and Robert Watts took home first place honors at the Virginia FIRST Eastern Regional Robotics competition, held at Norfolk State University on Jan. 24.
FIRST is an international non-profit group focused on expanding STEM education for students.
Although the competition sounds like the activity of a club or extracurricular activity, it was actually homework for the three seniors.
Jones, Kerner and Watts are students in York’s Advanced Drawing/Design/CAD class. The course focuses on advanced computer applications and design work, and requires prerequisites in technical drawing and engineering.
The class’ first major project was the robotics event. The competition brought together teams of high school students from around the region, each tasked with one goal – build a functioning robot.
Beyond that central objective, the competition was more complex. Teams would square off against each other, with the winner being chosen through a points system based on the actions of their robots.
The robots scored points through movement and manipulating balls scattered across a playing field. With a combination of pre-programmed actions and user controls, the robots would move the balls, placing them on top of small pedestals, all while navigating the playing field.
The team with the most points at the end of three minutes would win the round.
The three seniors were confident they could construct the robot, but the competition was still intimidating.
They had one of the smallest teams at the competition – three students – and many teams had connections to professional engineers. The York students had John Hammons, their teacher who is not an engineer.
“We had limited resources,” Kerner said. “We had to make the best use of our time, so the first thing we focused on was capacity, and then efficiency.”
One major concern remained – their robot was smaller than most of the other entered in the competition. It had treads for movement, and claws at the front and rear to manipulate the balls, but other robots towered over the York machine.
“Our robot was really low-profile,” Watts said. “It was very mobile. It didn’t have much on top except for a servo motor that helped [to] grab.”
In the competition’s qualifying round, the York team finished in the middle of the pack – 13th out of 22 teams. Although they were pleased with the standings, the results of the first round showed them how they could improve the robot to score more points.
The second round was a different story, as the team won match after match – five in total – securing a spot in the finals for their robot.
The final round was a best-of-three matchup. York won the first match and lost the second. But in the final heat, York’s robot prevailed. The loss in the second finals match was the team’s first of the day.
“We were the underdog,” Watts said. “It was only a third the size as some of the other robots. But it was just a simple design, and it worked.”
The win in the regional competition earned the York team one of five berths to the Virginia FIRST state robotics competition in Richmond on Feb. 28.
The three seniors are working on their entry for the state competition, but Jones, Kerner and Watts each agreed the experience had been useful, regardless of its final outcome. Jones and Kerner said they are both interested in studying engineering in college.
Watts is uncertain of engineering as a career, but said the competition taught a valuable lesson.
“You do a lot of problem solving like you would in real life,” he said. “What the competition teaches you is that there are a lot of solutions to a problem.”