This is the time of year that Team Tators lives for.
They exude an energy that is palpable because they have a mere six weeks to design, build and program a robot that is faster and smarter than any of its kind in the world.
It’s not just idle talk and theory. It’s serious work.
So serious, in fact, that in 2015, Gov. Butch Otter created the Idaho STEM Action Center to nurture education in science, technology, engineering and math. The center offers thousands of dollars in grants, teacher training and student opportunities to promote STEM activities, starting as early as kindergarten.
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One of the groups the Action Center supports is FIRST Robotics.
Angela Hemingway, director of the center, told a legislative budget committee that 7,000 STEM jobs went unfilled in Idaho in 2017. That’s twice the number of the year before. If the jobs had been filled, the salaries would have generated about $24 million in state tax revenue.
“FIRST Robotics inspires students to take more rigorous math and science courses and increases their STEM knowledge,” says Hemingway. FIRST robotics also significantly increases the likelihood of boys as well as girls to study in STEM fields, which is important to the Action Center.
‘Varsity sport of the mind’
Team Tators is among 3,685 teams from 27 countries that compete in FIRST Robotics. They are the most competitive of the 15 Idaho teams (five in the Treasure Valley) and the first to make it to the world championships.
But it’s not all technology. There’s problem-solving, teamwork, leadership and mentoring — developing better human beings and better workers.
“They call it the varsity sport of the mind,” says team mentor Mark Wibbels, a Hewlett-Packard mechanical engineer.
Team Tators finished third in the world last year.
“We didn’t get to play in the championship (match) because our robot came apart,” Wibbels says.
That puts an edge to this year’s competition. “We were just right on the cusp,” he says. “Close enough. We can smell them. We just — we didn’t get it done.”
If you ask senior Taylor King how this season looks to him, he doesn’t even hesitate. “I want to win.”
The last robot standing
Unlike football, where the game basically stays the same, each robotics season begins with a new game. The game structure, construction rules, points and scoring — hundreds of pages of rules — are announced on the first Saturday in January.
That’s the starting gun.
All 30 or so members of Team Tators, plus a dozen mentors and equally as many alumni, spend a weekend becoming experts on the rules and figuring out a strategy. Their goal: Build a robot that can score the most points in the shortest time, that’s easy to drive, that’s impervious to crashes and mishaps — and has an ingenious something-something that gives them a tactical advantage.
“We want to be the last robot on the field,” says Wibbels.
And if you thought kids in sports were dedicated, consider this: Every evening after school, plus every weekend and often until the wee hours of the morning, the core of Team Tators is hard at work. Plus, they have to keep up with school and homework.
Their computer screens are filled with three-dimensional parts that rotate with the flick of a computer mouse, breathtakingly beautiful.
They live on parent-made muffins and banana bread. They design components. They talk strategy. They talk parts. They brainstorm a half-dozen ideas to solve some nuance of a robotic movement. They fire up a metal lathe and mill in the shop. They make prototypes. They reject prototypes. They tweak prototypes.
“When you’re trying to compete at the top, you can make one error in strategy way back that pins your design to something that’s a fatal flaw,” says Wibbels.
The “build season” ends Tuesday, when the robot is locked in a bag until competition. Work doesn’t stop, of course. Team Tators goes the extra mile by building a duplicate robot. They’ll continue to fine-tune the programming and the mechanics. The robot’s operators practice relentlessly on a custom-made field.
Idaho’s regional competition is March 29-31 at Taco Bell Arena at Boise State University. But Team Tators is a traveling team, which gives them three competitions in which to qualify for the world championships. And improve. And tweak. At each competition, the robot box is unlocked and, in a flurry of orchestrated chaos, they’ll make their adjustments and roll into the playing field.
“We’re slow. We’re little. We build in a small shop,” says Wibbels. “We’re from Boise, Idaho. … Considering who we try to compete with, we’re small potatoes.” He grins at the double-entendre.
Team Tators has generous and essential sponsors, like Treasure Valley Math and Science Center, Trinity Manufacturing, Hewlett-Packard and Micron Foundation, which support the time and expertise of mentors and contribute shop time and materials. One of their competitors, however, builds at the Johnson Space Center.
“They’ve got 100 students; we’ve got about 30,” says Wibbels. “That’s OK. We have a little chip on our shoulder as a result — and it motivates us. We beat them when we can; sometimes they beat us. That’s OK. We run hard. We can get it done.”