March Madness, Robot Style

 

A rookie, all-girl team ran their robot to victory in a ball-kicking tournament held last weekend at Manhattan’s Javits Center. The team, from the Mary Louis Academy (TMLA), a Catholic, all-girls high school in Queens, will go on to Atlanta’s Georgia Dome next month to compete with hundreds of other robotics victors for the grand championship. The annual cycle of tournaments is sponsored by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit established by inventor Dean Kamen in 1989.

The game’s like soccer, but played by boxy robots on wheels (see video above). The field sports two raised bumps, dividing it into three sections, in order to challenge kids’ design minds. Robots can either slide under open spaces between the bumps or crawl over the bumps, aiming to roll or kick balls into goals on the ends of the field.

Two alliances of three teams each compete in each round, meaning there are always six robots on the field at any one time. Each round lasts 2 minutes and 15 seconds, with the robots running purely autonomously, according to pre-programmed code, for the first 15 seconds. Sixty-four teams competed in the NYC regional games last weekend.

The TMLA team formed this year at the instigation of Kathy Rutherford, a 1979 TMLA graduate who has judged FIRST competitions for the past six years and is an electrical and biomedical engineer and a senior IEEE member. To get her alma mater more involved in engineering, she introduced the school’s principal and math department chair to the competition last year, and now she’s seeing the fruits of her (and the girls’) labor.

“It’s better than my 30-year reunion,” Rutherford says, watching the girls scurry around their robot, tightening bolts and attaching zip ties to loose wires. “It’s really about how you inspire the next generation, and here they are!”

In January, when this year’s game challenge was announced and kits containing critical parts were handed out to eager teams around the world, TMLA science teacher and FIRST team mentor Vinod Lala told Spectrum that the girls were mainly interested in getting their feet wet, learning about the competition, and just building something in their first year. They didn’t even have a catchy name for their robot, calling it simply “TMLA.” But they went much farther than they’d planned.

When they heard their team number called during the playoffs “draft” last Sunday, Lala says, some of the girls had to look down at their T-shirts to make sure they’d heard right. “We had to pick our jaws up off the floor,” he says. Team captain Vanessa Ronan was surprised, but ran to the field to accept the invitation to join the top-ranked alliance.

 

Angela Guiliani, another TMLA team member, agrees that her team wasn’t expecting to make it to qualifying rounds. “It’s not that we weren’t doing well,” she says, “but we hadn’t even gotten our [ball] kicker working yet.”

That turned out not to matter, because the alliance wanted them for a different purpose: defense. “Our robot was moving really well,” Guiliani says, even if it didn’t kick, and she thinks that’s why they were picked; the robot could deftly protect its partners and stop the opposition from scoring goals.

Together with their partners from Wissahickon High School, in Pennsylvania (Miss Daisy), and New York’s Stuyvesant High School (Stuypulse), TMLA advanced through two quarterfinal rounds and into semifinals. Their alliance’s strategy was working perfectly.

Then, after an aggressive shove from another robot, a wheel and chain flew off TMLA’s robot, putting it out of commission. Rather than waiting while they replaced it, holding up the game, the alliance chose a replacement team—incidentally the only other all-girls team participating in the regional competition, the Iron Maidens of the Bronx High School of Science.

But the deal was that if the alliance won, then all four teams, including TMLA, would be qualified for the championship games in Atlanta.

The battle was fierce. With the Iron Maidens playing defense, blocking goals their opponents tried to score, the alliance advanced to finals. They won their first round, bolstered by the Stuyvesant robot’s ability to hook onto the railings in the center of the field and hoist itself off the ground—an action earning them extra points.

A tense second round left the group with more points than the opposition, but due to penalties they lost the match. They pulled their robots off the field, made final adjustments, and set up for round three, the final countdown.

They won handily. The bleachers erupted with cheering from the fans. Kids screamed and jumped up and down and hugged and high-fived. The captain of Stuyvesant’s team pulled out his phone and started texting madly.

Now the winning teams are headed to the championships, and with them go the rookies—no longer quite so rookie—of TMLA. Only about 16 percent of rookie teams advance to the championship each year, according to FIRST spokespeople.

“It’s a bit of a Cinderella story,” says TMLA’s principal, Sister Kathleen McKinney. “We went into this as kind of an unknown…  There aren’t that many all-girls teams, and not that many Catholic schools" involved in the program, she says. Their team didn’t have any sponsors, receiving funding instead from a group of generous alums. The fact that they get to advance their first time in the game, McKinney says, is “really exciting.”

The girls are wearing their team shirts at school and getting congratulated in the halls. Lala’s classes even applaud when he walks into the room.

It’s not all wine and roses, of course. Lala is exhausted, and says he was looking forward to a break. But he’s very proud of the team, and ready to dedicate another month to the project. “I’ve sacrificed four or five months—what’s one more?” he says. He’s already fielding questions from girls who want to join the team next year.

Greg Ronan, the team’s parent mentor and a fiber optics engineer, says that FIRST is great for the girls because it gives them exposure to things they don’t normally get to do—like machining robot parts.

The other good thing, he adds, is that some kids may already like this kind of tinkering, but FIRST helps them discover that they’re not alone. “It’s important to know others are interested in the same things,” Ronan says.

As for whether they will actually get to go to the championships in Atlanta, having now qualified, McKinney is emphatic: they’re going, whatever it takes. “If it was our basketball team, or our speech team, and they qualified, we’d send them,” she says. “This is just as important.”

That’s music to the ears, and the reason FIRST exists: to make sure people realize that science and engineering really are as important as other sports.

Photo: TMLA, Wissahickon HS, and Stuyvesant HS students planning their alliance strategy.

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