ST. LOUIS — Super nerds from around the globe have taken over the home of the St. Louis Rams football team here just blocks from the landmark Gateway Arch that keeps watch over the Mississippi River.
“We’ve come to terms with the fact that this is our sport,” says Helena Robotics Team member and Capital High School senior Abby Montgomery.
There’s no shame in the term “nerd” for these students; in fact, they embrace it by sporting buttons indicating they are not only incredibly smart, but proud of it.
The Helena robotics team flew to St. Louis late Tuesday night to join nearly 11,000 young people from 29 countries and their hand-built robots for the FIRST Tech Challenge World Championships and its four competitive divisions.
The Helena team, which is competing in the FIRST Tech division, won a qualifying match in Bozeman at the FTC Regional Tournament in February. And, because of an alliance made with a California team, both teams were extended an invitation to the world championships based on their scores.
The Helena team didn’t bring lots of glitz and glamour on the trip. In fact, other than team shirts, they came with a robot, tools and — most importantly — fierce dedication.
Some of the other nearly 130 teams in the FTC division, on the other hand, showed enthusiastic spirit with their team names, clothing and accessories. The team from The Netherlands called “Climax” sported orange blazers, cowboy hats and blue-and-white pants. “Da Peeps” are a group of eighth- and ninth-graders from Flint, Mich., and for the first year brought more girls than boys. They handed out bracelets and comfortably visited with those who passed by showcasing their history with the intense event.
This is the third consecutive year for an
all-girls team called “Fembots” from South Carolina. Their entire station was plastered boldly in pink.
“We like to break all the stereotypes,” said Mandy Turner, a sophomore from Anderson Career and Technology Center in Williamston, S.C.
The Helena team, made up of four freshmen and three seniors, spent Wednesday preparing their minds and their machine for the world championship competition that runs through Saturday.
The Edward Jones Dome was buzzing with activity as 700 volunteers prepared six playing fields for three simultaneous competitions, but the students remained focused. Capital High School senior Forrest Arnold lifted out the 28-pound robot from a hand-made wooden box that was checked at the Helena Regional Airport less than 20 hours beforehand.
“We have to reattach everything that was removed for shipping, check for loose nuts, bolts and wires,” he said.
The unloading and reattaching went fairly smoothly with only a couple small mishaps, like the battery being installed backwards.
Helena mentor Don Hurd said the entire process from brainstorming to competition is about problem solving. He said this type of education is far superior to large schools with large classrooms taking standardized tests.
“When you go to work, you don’t get a multiple choice test,” said the 69-year-old retired engineer. “This is as close to an engineering job as these kids can get in high school.”
That’s not to say they won’t land potential internships from employers such as Boeing, National Instruments and Motorola that are on site.
The Helena students used zip ties to emblazon their team No. 4309 to the robot, tightened all the necessary nuts and bolts, and smoothly made it through the hardware and software inspections.
Helena High School freshman Joe Whitney stood tall and quiet, confidently waiting in line for robot inspections — the first official event before an opening ceremony Wednesday night and Thursday’s early 7:15 a.m. start.
“(Inspection) is all right unless something goes wrong,” he said.
Jeffrey Lucas, a volunteer from Delaware, gave the robot a green light during the hardware inspection with only a few minor adjustments — a needed flag holder and to file down a sharp corner.
Hurd, the team and coaches John Miller and Theresa Vedovatti spent the remainder of the afternoon on the practice fields testing their robot for autonomous and tele-operated modes. The team burnt out a track motor and brainstormed while en route back to the Crown Plaza, where they are staying, about how to prevent that from happening again when it matters most.
Miller says about 90 percent of what the team does during these competitions is problem solving.
“Everybody has errors and they are working on them — there is constant evolution with the robots,” he said. “Sometimes there are glitches in wires or programming, and we have to quickly repair them or find a solution. But we aren’t alone; everyone here is in the same boat.”
Miller says as the competition progresses, invariably more challenges will arise.
“It’s more about how your robot finishes than how it begins,” he said.
The FTC qualification matches being this morning. The Helena team began networking early on since it’s anybody’s guess who they’ll be teamed up with and what alliances will be formed. Two teams are paired up and compete against two other teams, and they progress as points are earned.
These students have the opportunity to win various awards, $9.6 million in scholarships, and the students say even without all that, it’s an opportunity of a lifetime.
Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or Alana.firstname.lastname@example.org