St. Johnsbury Academy's new Robotics Team coach, Jim Baker, described Robotics as, "the only high-school team where everyone can go pro." He has coached five teams to successful completion of the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition and aims to do the same at St. Johnsbury Academy. His team is hard at work preparing for two district competitions in Springfield, Mass. and Smithfield, R.I. in March, perhaps then progressing to the district championship in Boston, Mass. and the World Championship in St. Louis, Mo.
Baker also hopes to help extend the Robotics program to St. Johnsbury School next year, with the SJA team members acting as mentors, forming a team that would compete in the First Tech Challenge or the First Lego League, both of which are aimed at younger students.
The FIRST website describes the program as, "the hardest fun you'll ever have ... The annual programs culminate in an international robotics competition and celebration where teams win recognition, gain self-confidence, develop people and life skills, make new friends, and perhaps discover an unforeseen career path." This year's competition is based on a game called Recycle Rush.
"Recycle Rush is a recycling-themed game played by two Alliances of three robots each. Robots score points by stacking totes on scoring platforms, capping those stacks with recycling containers, and properly disposing of pool noodles, representing litter. In keeping with the recycling theme of the game, all game pieces used are reusable or recyclable by teams in their home locations or by FIRST at the end of the season." All of this is accomplished using robots team members build at their schools with the kits provided by FIRST and additional parts manufactured by the students and their coaches. Baker estimates that the SJA robot will contain approximately 700 parts. The team will be designing a clamp forklift including a lift mechanism with clamp arms and many other parts of its robot. The robots are also programmed using JAVA, serving as a practical application of students' Programming JAVA and AP Computer Science courses.
Key to the SJA team's preparation is its access to the Academy's new Maker Space. Students are designing many of the robot's parts using 3-D computer-aided design software; the designs are then converted using computer-aided machining software and then the required parts are manufactured using the school's CNC machine. Students are participating fully in designing and machining the parts and gaining expertise in all steps of the process.
Information about each year's contest is released in early January; teams are given six weeks to build and program their robot. During those weeks, students work daily on their robots after school for 3-4 hours, also working on Saturdays from approximately 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The robots must be made of certain materials and conform to strict size, shape, and other rules. This year, all components of the robot must be recyclable in response to the theme, Recycle Rush.
Baker hopes to increase the number of participants in the Academy's Robotics team; in his former school in Utah, his team grew from 15 in the first year to 31 by the fifth.
Dr. Elia Dejardins, Head of SJA's Science department, said, "The FIRST Robotics competition is an authentic opportunity for students to test their design and problem-solving skills in a challenging environment. The short and intense build cycle demands that students really commit to the team just as they would at the end of an athletics season. The scope of the competition is also broad enough to allow a diverse range of students to participate: in addition to design, CAD, programming, and machining skills, the team needs participants with strong verbal and visual communication and managerial skills. I am excited to see our program rejuvenated and I'm looking forward to a successful season."
Academy Headmaster Tom Lovett said, "The FIRST program, like many of our programs across campus, integrates knowledge and skills across disciplines, and the addition of the Maker Space has added an extra dimension of design and prototyping to our hands-on curricula. We are fortunate to have faculty like Dr. Desjardins and Mr. Baker who are not only familiar with the equipment and competition for FIRST, but also experienced in the Maker movement and the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Our students can "go pro" in large part because they are being mentored by professionals in the field."