Local robotics team starts new season next month

Local robotics team starts new season next month

CHAMPAIGN — For a local robotics team made up of middle and high schoolers, build season is a six-week scramble.

Last year, the challenge was to build a robot that fired Frisbees, could move offensively in matches against other robots (including forward, backward and sideways) and could climb a jungle-gym like structure. It will start next year's season Jan. 4.

The team, which is called Ctrl-Z (which is the keyboard command you type to undo an action), is a FIRST Robotics Competition Team. FIRST is a company that includes robotic leagues for students of all ages, and the league in which Ctrl-Z competes is for the oldest students. It gives them the most complex tasks and the least time to complete them of all of its leagues.

However, the team does more than just build robots.

It also provides them other leadership opportunities as they work within the community to promote robotics and serve others.

"You don't have to be interested in being an engineer," to participate, said Evan Petty, one of the team captains.

Competitions, for which the team builds robots, are one fun (but stressful) activity members participate in.

Once there, the team will work with others in loose agreements called alliances, to compete with other teams. The idea is what FIRST calls "coopertition": teams must be able to work together even though they're competitors.

During the rest of the year, the club has two two-hour meetings per week, which cover topics like their work finding sponsors, and then some technical topics that get the team ready for build season, like how a drive train operates, or how to learn computer-aided drafting.

One recent evening, team members worked with customized software to test a camera mounted on the robot. The software translates images in its field of view into polygons to calculate how far the robot is from an object marked by reflective tape.

Other team members practiced working with chain links, for possible future use on a drive train.

It's also hoping to become a true community-sponsored team, and so is approaching local businesses about sponsorships, with the goal of raising $25,000 by Jan. 1, to pay for building its robot, enter competitions and pay for its members' transportation and accommodations while they compete.

The team is also always looking for new members in high school and late in their middle school careers, and for professionals to mentor team members not just in robotics and engineering, but also things like marketing, fundraising, public relations, keeping team morale up and setting goals.

Assistant coach Michelle Jett said the goal is to help students figure out those fields themselves, not do the work for them.

"It's a lot of hands-on experience," said Paula Norato, a team captain.

Norato said participating on the team has built her confidence.

"This team has really challenged me," and team members hold each other responsible for getting things done, she said.

For example, not only do they learn about and build robots, but they have an entire business plan, executive summary and bylaws. One team member was interested in web design, so he built the team a website. Members are in charge of things like fundraising and marketing the team, and in organizing what team members call "outreach events," which is when the team goes out into the community to demonstrate what they've built or to teach others about robotics.

This summer, they wrote a curriculum and staffed a one-week summer camp at Uni High on robotics. They also work with younger students to help them realize the importance of science, technology, engineering and math. The goal is to improve the community they live in.

They averaged more than one such event per week this summer, said Neil Tewksbury, another team captain.

Many team members balance their time working on their robotics and other duties with extracurriculars at their schools. For example, several members were on University Laboratory High School's soccer team this year, and carpooled over to the team's warehouse space after practice, grabbing dinner on the way.

Team captain Kavi Naidu said during build seasons, he might leave for school at 8 a.m. and not get home until 8 or 9 p.m., but that's his choice. When the busiest time is over, he said he's not sure what to do with his time.

"Everything we do is what we want to be doing," he said. "It's totally worth it."

For more information about the team or to connect with team members, you can email ctrlz@team4096.org, or visit team4096.org.

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