Monrovia High School played host to the Regional FTC Robotics Tournament on Saturday. The competition seems at first to be strongly competitive until on listens to the competitors. Beyond the competition, there is a spirit of cooperation that is unusual in high school competition. It not something one finds on the basketball court or the football field, but it is not only the norm here, but virtually expected of the competitors.
One competitor from The Rock Academy in San Diego, Matt Wright, 15, explained that this spirit of cooperation is a part of the FTC experience. “We call it gracious professionalism,” he said. It seems more like a miracle. Time and again, that gracious professionalism showed itself in stories the young people recounted of other tournaments.
Aisha Rigert of Lancaster who competes with the Phi Omega team (most of whose members are home-schooled students) said that before an earlier tournament they had communicated with another “team” which asked for some help. She said the other team turned out to be one person without a robot. Phi Omega helped him build a robot out of their practice robot.
Rigert explained that the single person “team” went on do very well in the tournament. The interesting thing was the pride in her voice when she recounted the story and reported on how well the “competitor” they had mentored had done.
Another young competitor, Jose Ortega, another member of the Warriors from Rock Academy is only 14, a freshman in high school. He is one of his team’s programmers. At the last tournament he made friends with several of the members of the robotics team from a private Catholic school in Palm Desert. That team’s advisor is an English teacher with limited robotics experience. Ortega volunteered to assist the Palm Desert team with the problems they were having with their programming.
These are just two of the examples that gracious spirit: competition with cooperation. There is also a sense of joy and a quirky sort of creativity. One of the judges referred to it as a sport for geeks: creative competition with a mathematical edginess. OH KAY.
And here nerd is not a negative term. Rigert, the young woman from the Phi Omega team said that at FTC competitions, “being called a nerd is a compliment.”
Creativity was a foremost consideration for many of the teams. Some of the names the teams selected demonstrate that quirky sense of humor. For example there was the Chaotic Rainbow, Shockwave, Tesla’s Angels, and Cubed Squared. I sometimes it takes a nerd to understand the team names. Who knew what a Panthalope was? The students from Vistamar High School do.
Then there were the outfits. One of the teams from Monrovia High School is called “Suitbots” and their costume consists of black suits and shirts with white ties and snap-brim fedoras (Even their robot, Isaac – named for Sir Isaac Newton – sports a white tie). Another team, Syntax Error, has team members in green-men suits with black capes. It takes chutzpah to wear a green unitard at a high school level competition.
The young ladies from the Girls Scouts of Greater Los Angeles have the Rock N’ Roll Robots and sport teal outfits and wander about playing blow up plastic guitars (one member even wears a teal tutu which she explains is a great conversation starter. No kidding.
All of this activity is going on around the competition itself. The robots the students build and program are designed to work in cooperation and competition. Two teams are paired together to work in cooperation against two other teams. In the initial rounds, the teams are randomly paired.
In order to win points, the teams aim to have their robots retrieve rings from holders on the sides of a 12’ x 12’ competition field. In the center of this square is an open work frame made of PVC pipe. This structure has 18 pegs, 9 on each side. The robots try to place the rings on the various pegs: 5 point for a peg on the bottom row, 10 for the center, and 15 for the top. Additional bonus points are awarded for three in a row, across, down or diagonally (just like in Tic Tac Toe).
In Saturday’s tournament there were 47 teams and so they were divided into two divisions: Odyssey and Galileo. The four highest scoring teams in each division were then allowed to choose two partner teams to form an alliance of three. The alliances then battled in the quarterfinals. One local team, Monrovia High School’s Suitbots became on of these alliance leaders, and another, MHS’s Kings and Queens, was selected as an alliance partner. Unfortunately both were eliminated at this level.
One alliance from each division went on play in the final round. On the field the winning alliance captain was WHS Robotics from Cerritos (#542). The winning alliance partners were the Metal Ducks from Hemet (#5826) and the Gaulbots from Claremont (#358).
The top honor, the Inspire Award, went to Shockwave from Encinitas (#3848). The team that wins this award receives the regions only automatic birth in the world championships. The award is presented by the tournament judges to the team that best represents a “role model” FTC team.
The Suitbots were recognized with the Rockwell Collins Innovate Award. This award “celebrates a team that not only thinks outside the box, but also has the ingenuity and inventiveness to make their designs come to life,” according to the FTC rules. Like the Inspire Award, the recipient of the Innovate Award is determined by a panel of judges
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about this competition is the intensity of the observers. Even after the eliminations in the first round, most of the competitors stayed to watch the balance of the competition. Even when their own team was eliminated, these young people stayed to watch and cheer on others, some they had just met that day.
In addition to the young people, sponsors, mentors, teachers and parents watched the competition from the bleachers in the gym where the competition rings filled the floor space. And these spectators were a diverse group. There was Sandy Bruesch, a 69 year old retired teacher who one taught college level math. She was whipping around the gymnasium on her electric scooter sporting a black shirt with a bright yellow tie, the colors of her Whitney High School Robotics team, the Bee’s Knees. She explained that the she was involved because “These young people are our future.”
The same sentiment was expressed by Gregory Wright, a self-proclaimed “Christian Financial Planner” who was at the tournament to support the Rock Academy Warriors, a team from the school sponsored by the church he attends. He went on to say that one of the benefits of attending the tournaments was meeting other people and looking past the appearance of others. Wright then reached out to introduce “Larry.” This man was the apparent leader of the adults cheering for the Quartz Hills High School teams, the Rebelutionary and Code Reb. Wright called “Larry” one of the friends he had made. “Larry” can best be described as looking like a biker, complete with do-rag, black leather pants and vest, and eyeliner (think Captain Jack Sparrow as a biker dude. Two more diverse characters could not be found, but they were united in their support of the young people.
The diversity of the adults matched the diversity of the competitors themselves. They came from as far away as San Diego and Santa Barbara. The greatest travel time was logged by the Punabots, from Honolulu, Hawaii. The team pulled its name from the school most of its members attend, the legendary, Punahou School. Bringing the Aloha spirit to the competition, this team presented all the other teams with chocolate covered macadamia nuts.
Jonathan Lokus from Phi Omega, summed up the tournament best. He said, “It was a good day; nothing blew up.”
Yes, these nerds, these creative geeks with their suits, their green unitards, their rainbow wigs, their crazy names and crazier costumes are our future. They are the Bill Gates and the Steve Jobs of tomorrow.
Written on a Macbook Pro using Microsoft word. Thank you Bill. Requiescat in pace, Steve.
-Photo and story by susan Motander