For the fifth time since it began 12 years ago, the Bonners Ferry High School Robotics Team qualified to compete at the World FIRST Robotics Competition. The acronym FIRST means “For Interest and Recognition in Science and Technology” and is an organization that engages student teams in head-to-head competition. On a special playing field, teams are challenged to use robots they have designed, built and programmed to play a game wherein their bot must complete specific tasks within a limited time. Not intimidated by the challenge, the students on the Alpha+2130 robotics team from Bonners Ferry know how to get to the top. These kids know their success requires more than just great design and coding abilities. Leadership, teamwork and the business skills of fundraising and money management are also necessary. As a result of their hard work to develop these skills, these students have been to the 2018 world competition, have had their eyes opened to the vast opportunities in technology and science, and have been validated that being smart is cool.
Ed Katz, a retired science teacher and the team’s lead mentor, credits the team’s success to this year’s particularly high-performing, advanced group of students and the many mentors who are involved. Their mentors have a variety of professional experience. Some have worked in railway, forestry, automation, design and even aerospace. These mentors guide and help the students, but the actual design, building and programming are student led. Regina Claphan, a freshman on this year’s team, explains, “The mentors are extremely supportive. They encourage us to learn and expand our knowledge and to have fun!”
In January, the game for the current year is announced to teams all over the world, and students are given a six-week build period to design and fabricate their robot. During this time, the Bonners Ferry team maintains a rigorous schedule. Students and their mentors meet six days a week, working for a few hours each day after school and all day both Fridays and Saturdays. Although 25-plus hours a week sounds like a lot, Regina says, “If you enjoy robotics, it’s not that big of a price to pay.”
Students learn work ethic, teamwork and ownership. “Build season is an amazing experience,” adds Regina. “I learned a lot about design and building. The older kids and mentors taught me a ton. On the team, everyone helps each other and looks out for each other.”
As Ed says, “The peer-to-peer teaching that goes on is a beautiful thing. They’ve built a culture.” The older students bring freshmen along, teaching them everything from the business side of writing letters to potential sponsors to designing and programming their robot. Older students use their newly acquired calculus knowledge to code, and “when a younger student begins to see how calculus can be incorporated into programming, all of a sudden calculus becomes as exciting as anything else,” he explains.
Making education fun and exciting is the goal of the team’s adult mentors. And this enthusiasm for learning is evident in this group of students, too. “They coach themselves on the field. They make strategic decisions. They push the mentors to push the bar higher. [They’ve learned that] as much as they put in, they get out. It’s become unbelievable the things that are being done by the students,” Ed exclaims.
Wanting to compete against teams with more experience, the Bonners Ferry team worked to attend two regional competitions this year. “Our kids wanted to achieve more,” says Ed. In both the Calgary and Boise regional events, Alpha+2130 competed with 40 teams and qualified for the world competition in Houston in April 2018.
“Being at Worlds was an amazing experience,” explains student team member Regina. There are 400 teams from “so many different countries. And they have so many ideas you wouldn’t have ever thought of!” In addition to the teams, top technology and science universities and companies from around the world are there to support and reinforce student work in STEM. This sharing of ideas, participating with 20,000 other students in competition, attending lectures hosted by top competing student teams, and meeting executives and researchers in STEM is an exhilarating opportunity for students. “It gives them a place in the world,” explains Ed. “It’s like having your own kids and experiencing anything new with them. You feel that joy. It’s inspiring to see. The kids inspire me. They work hard and improved even while we were there.”
Giving back to the community and encouraging younger kids to be interested in STEM is another important aspect of the Alpha+1230 team. Students from the team help coach and judge LEGO robotics at the junior high level. And, for the past two summers, students have hosted a week-long robotics summer camp for fifth and sixth graders. These high school students create their own LEGO robotics game and other STEM activities for the elementary students.
Now at the end of their season, members of the robotics team are busy writing 62 thank you letters to the many sponsors who have given financial support for their success. Entrance fees, buses, hotels, plane tickets and high-end robot parts make running a robotics team an expensive venture. Students apply for grants, make presentations to potential business sponsors, publicize on social media and host their summer camp in an effort to raise funds. Ed credits the community for their strong—unusually strong—support. “People just sent checks in when the team qualified for Worlds. One of the touching things this year was that some of our past kids sent money to support our team going to Worlds.”
He adds: “What’s spectacular about this whole operation is that we’re a small community. We play against teams three times our size and with twice the budget.” And they’re successful! The students of Alpha+1230 have the opportunity to participate in something important and meaningful—something that may even direct the course of their lives. “Once you get hooked you’re hooked,” explains Ed. “It’s really an engaging endeavor.”
The Bonners Ferry robotics team is engaged in more than building sophisticated robots; they are building a future.