WESTERLY — With the clock ticking, two robots whirred and pivoted as they expertly picked up balls and cubes, known as “minerals,” depositing them into bins attached to a simulated planetary rover in the Terrace Room of the Westerly Public Library Wednesday afternoon.
Circling the “field,” a 12-foot-by-12-foot square surrounded by a one-foot wall where the robots worked, were teenagers who recently took first and second place out of 32 teams in the statewide FIRST Tech Challenge, a robotics competition for students in grades 7-12, now in its 30th year.
The teens, who are members of Shoreline Robotics, a Pawcatuck-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education through robotics, created two robots for this year’s competition, called the “Rover Ruckus.”
One robot the students built had a tube mechanism to pick up balls, while the other robot had a particular advantage, which earned the team extra points, said Earl Wagner, of North Stonington, a robotics coach, who was watching the demonstration.
“Most teams could only pick up the balls, but the robot with the claw enables us to pick up the cubes, too,” said Wagner as the robot’s claw opened, grasped a 4-inch-by-4-inch foam cube and, after the machine traveled to the rover and dropped the cube into the correct bin.
Placing first and second qualifies Shoreline’s Cybears team to advance to the world championships in Detroit April 24-27. The Raiderbots of Charles E. Shea Senior High School, in Pawtucket, will also advance to the championships.
The state competition was made up of three parts: the 30-second autonomous period, the 2-minute driver-controlled period and the 30-second “end game.”
During the autonomous period, the robot performed tasks such as undocking itself from the rover, finding minerals in certain locations, claiming a square for the team and parking in a “crater” — all done through pre-programmed software, without human intervention.
During the driver-controlled period, known as “tele-op,” designated teen drivers operated the robots via gamepad controllers, scooping up and depositing as many balls and cubes as possible to earn points. In the end game, the robot operators were required to dock their robot on the planetary rover.
This year, Shoreline Robotics consisted of 22 students hailing from Westerly, Stonington, Richmond and Bradford — some from public school and some who are homeschooled. The program meets twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays in the “makers space” in the library.
“They worked hard and a lot of kids came back so we were able to bring a lot of experience forward. We got a good start early in the year,” said Jay Spalding, who co-directs Shoreline Robotics with his wife, Irene Gonin.
Learning to work with others, gaining exposure to technical processes and finding niches in business and marketing were all benefits students can receive from the program, Spalding said.
“They learn teamwork — no one kid can do this by themselves,” he said. “Some have never held a screwdriver before, so they get exposure to using tools. The main thing is they can all find a place, they can all contribute.”
He said the robotics group has many needs, such as technical roles in building, programming, writing documentation or photography, or marketing and business positions creating websites and social media content.
Gonin said she and Spalding, who are both engineers, started the program in 2016 to provide students with aspects of STEM education they saw as missing from school curricula.
“We started this because the schools weren’t doing it and I felt like my kids weren’t getting exposure to real-life challenges and problem-solving and thinking,” Gonin said.
She said students enter the program interested in one aspect of robotics but often discover new interests and skills.
“Kids come in with what they think they’re good at and they end up learning they’re good at a lot of other things — that is by far is the best part of the program,” she said.
Veronica Kushner, 13, of Bradford, a homeschooled student in her second year of the robotics program, said she has gained technical and business skills by being a team member.
“One of my main roles is the driver, so I work the robot in the actual competition,” she said. “What I’m getting out of it is also a whole bunch of leadership skills, public speaking, teamwork, and all the good things about working with the group — learning how to share your ideas but also accept the ideas of others and how to work together for a win-win situation.”
She commented that the robots are always under construction, even after a competition.
“The robot can always be improved, it’s not because it’s not good — it works very, very well — but it can always be better,” she said.
Owen McLaughlin 15, of Westerly, who is a sophomore at Westerly High School in the PTECH program, said the robotics group dovetails well with his career path.
“I’ll graduate with an Associate’s Degree in manufacturing and I might go to Electric Boat,” he said. “I’m a builder and a CAD technician, and this has given me a place to work on CAD, which I find very enjoyable.”
Ryan ODell, 17, a senior at Stonington High School, said the robotics program has allowed him explore his interest in programming, which began in eighth grade. He said he planned to study computer science in college and will return to the robotics group as a mentor. He also encouraged students of all interests to get involved with robotics and STEM.
“First and foremost, just get involved,” he said. “There are opportunties everywhere if you look for them.”
A new FIRST Tech Challenge is announced every year in September, Spalding said. The rules and stipulations can change from year to year — this year the robots had to fit into an 18-inch cube and weigh less than 42 pounds so that they could be docked onto the rovers.
To keep the competition fair, the types of motors and components are restricted to a specific list, Spalding said.
“We have a big bin of parts that the robots are built out of, and we fabricated some parts too,” he said.
Building the robots and entering competitions is expensive. The worldwide competition entry free for Detroit is $2,000, Spalding said.
The organization is funded through donations and sponsors, such as the Society of Women Engineers, as well as matching contributions.
“We are looking for other sources like STEM grants and anyone who’s willing to donate,” Spalding said.
A spaghetti dinner fundraiser for Shoreline Robotics will be held on March 30. For more information, contact Jay Spalding at email@example.com.