The robotics team is building a strong legacy of community outreach

By Alex Russell

Pictured is the latest iteration of Meridian High School’s robotics team, with team captain Bobby Miller and driving team coach Alexa Zurcher. (Photo: Alexa Zürcher).

In the world of team-based extracurricular activities, which largely depend on organized athletics or outdoor activities, robotics offers a unique opportunity for children to pool their knowledge and skills to create and operate their own robot.

Little City’s FIRST Robotics 1418 competition team, “Vae Victis,” has exemplified this dynamic since its founding in 2004 by John Ballou — he is now retired from the FCCPS but nevertheless hopes to return as a volunteer. Cricket Moore, with years of experience in civic engagement, joined Ballou as a team aide and coach in 2005.

Looking back on the pair’s years at the helm of the team, Moore says that “[John] did the construction and planning [and] I did the office work,” such as managing finances and travel itineraries — as competitions were often held outside of the Northern Virginia area.

From the start, Team 1418 was on no regular path because, according to Moore, “the original team consisted of the stage crew”. International Baccalaureate (IB) students and “computer kids” would soon swell the ranks. The team’s artistic “genes” would be highlighted time and time again, especially when it came to designing competition-themed t-shirts.

Mentor Don Brobst, who started with the team in 2009, spoke about the topics and methodology inherent in robotics, noting that they “teach technical skills, like programming, pneumatics (relating to the branch of engineering that uses pressurized gas to control physical systems)”, but that there is also a simultaneous emphasis on “soft skills, such as project management”.

The long-standing robotics team is only part of a larger robotics community, whose competitions and other events are organized and managed by For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), a youth organization nonprofit founded by Dean Kamen with the goal of supporting and inspiring students whose passions lie in engineering and technology.

In the immediate geographic context of the team, they are part of the greater district of Maryland, DC and Virginia, but FIRST events and programs span all fifty states – this year’s world championship was held in Texas – and integrate teams from all over the world.

Brobst said that throughout the team’s long history, “there have been kids who just wanted to do safety design or do t-shirt design,” making the robotics effort a larger “project” going beyond science and technology, further emphasizing that the group is an “inclusive team with lots of different skill sets”. He added that “there is something for everyone; they don’t all have to be engineers.

Moore echoed that sentiment when she spoke about the volunteer aspect of keeping Team 1418 running smoothly. “We need all kinds of volunteers, not just people who know how to build a robot out of nuts and bolts. bolts.”

Early volunteer duties saw Moore and “two inarticulate children named Andrew” standing in the alley leading to the weekly Farmer’s Market, receiving donations that way.

“By the end of the three weeks, the boys could look adults in the eye and engage in full conversations.” Fundraising soon took the form of back-to-school bake sales and raffles. Moore also mentioned the support of Janice Nette, whose sons were once members of the team. Netter was an “on-site mentor, collecting checks from children and donors, coming to every activity.” At one point, she hand-quilted two bed-sized robotics-themed quilts — with the school’s signature colors of red, white and black — which were then raffled off. for about a thousand dollars each. Later, the team will hold several pumpkin fundraising events until Covid-19 puts a hiatus on social gatherings.

Throughout the team’s fundraising efforts, there came a time when Moore realized that “we had to get the school system involved.”

“The superintendent let [us] have a school bus for 50th birthday [alumni reunion] tour of various classes at George Mason High School”, allowing Moore and some of the robotics kids, along with some empty bottled water jugs to donate, explaining the function and benefits of participating in robotics to alumni – and raise money that way. According to Moore, once the money was counted, Ballou noted that things had “gone better than a bake sale.”

Moore remains grateful for the support of the school system, saying the FCCPS “has been very good to us.” Thanks in part to funds set aside by the school system “for science endeavors…we have become a powerhouse of the district.”

Team 1418 has also benefited from “industry mentors”, with professionals from companies like BAE Systems, Booz Allen Hamilton and Leidos spending time with the team or providing grants to the team. Ballou shared that the creators of the Python coding language were also big supporters of the team, long before Python became a widely used programming tool.

Speaking of FIRST’s core ideal of “graceful professionalism,” Moore recalled how the team “won the award for gracious professionalism [in competition] several times”, personifying and emphasizing the importance of helping “the person who is in competition with you if they need help”.

Although the season ended last month, current FIRST robotics coach Steve Knight stressed the importance of continuing to raise awareness in the community.

Part of the outreach work includes hosting workshops at Team 1418’s base, Meridian High School. Brobst explained that “every [district] teams have the same level of mentors, so we launched a workshop [with] about ten different training courses”, in 2009. Participation was good since “a hundred people” took part in this first workshop.

“Over the years, the number of people and teams that have participated has grown.” The last in-person workshop took place in 2019; for health reasons, the team would proceed with hosting virtual subjects, with a reduced number of subjects. “Hopefully if all goes well we’ll have one in person [this year].”

Because FRC 1418 is a student-led team, returning members help by mentoring new additions to the group – and that was “one of our biggest challenges this year… only two” students were able to return to the team. ‘team; “[almost] everyone was new,” says Knight. Ballou agreed, saying that “because of Covid, this year’s team is a rookie team.” He hopes people can “appreciate how difficult it is to get into [this].”

Team 1418, adds Knight, “now meets weekly” and “official recruiting begins in May.” As the next school year begins, the team will continue to “talk about outreach opportunities,” as well as fundraising plans.

Alexa Zurcher, who was the practice squad coach last season, worked with team captain Bobby Miller “to create a presentation…for the school board,” which is scheduled to take place in the hall of the city ​​council on Tuesday, May 10.[This] will help us… give staff more information about our team. Funding will also be discussed.

Around the same time, Zurcher says the team will “start trying to recruit middle school kids” because FIRST robotics competitions only allow “high school kids, and therefore win as many newcomers as possible for the year. next will greatly help the team”. She plans to go to “grade 8 science classes at Mary Ellen Henderson in a few weeks.”

Speaking more about the new additions to the group, Zurcher explained that there is a “pre-season where we… teach some of the newcomers how to program and use different engines. That way, when the building season starts, they’ll be notified of how they can help build the robot. This pre-season is going to… start in about a month, so we’re going to start teaching some of the 8th graders.

It is above all a time for reflection. Brobst explained how “if the robots need to climb, we have…lots of suggestions from the kids on how to make the robot climb better…feedback from the kids [regarding] wanting more responsibility” is also received, which in turn requires “more time needed to practice” with the robot and fine-tune it.

On the first Saturday of January, FIRST unveils the contest theme for this season. “Every year there’s a new game,” says Moore, with “three or four tasks.” For example, a team’s robot may need to demonstrate the ability to “throw something into higher and higher receptacles” or “push an exercise ball” off a surface. “Climbing steps and hanging from bars at multiple heights” is among the most difficult tasks and earns extra points during competition.

During the first fifteen seconds of an event, “the robot is autonomous”, relying on its coded instructions. For the rest of the game, “the kids take over behind the glass,” telling the robot what to do with the game controllers.

Weeks of planning, organizing, coding, and building culminate in a random selection of various teams competing against each other in timed, “three teams against three teams” events. But Moore returns to the idea of ​​graceful professionalism as something that hovers above everything in robotics. “[It’s about] build a robot to form a team, instead of [having] a team builds a robot… it’s a character building program.

Robotics Team 1418 will be present at this year’s Memorial Day celebration on Monday, May 30, from FC Town Hall and the Community Center grounds (300 Park Avenue) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To learn more about the robotics team at Falls Church 1418, visit 1418.team. They can also be found on Instagram @1418roboticsmhs and on Twitter @Robotics1418.



Sam D. Gomez