A ‘Force’ to be reckoned with

HOLLIS – FIRST Robotics Team 1073, “The Force,” was established in 2003 by Neil Rosenberg and a handful of students. The Hollis/Brookline High School’s FIRST Robotics team has since been handed over to Sue Hay, the only teacher on the team, and now consists of nearly 70 student members.

In the seven years since the team was formed, it has improved dramatically and has won a variety of awards including the Rookie of the Year Award and the Entrepreneurial Award. Last year, the team was one of three Granite State Regional champions and moved on to the FIRST World Championship in Atlanta. The team placed as one of the top 50 teams.

Since 1989, the FIRST Robotics Competition, has paired high school students with mentors in the education and engineering fields to design and build a robot for regional competition. On Jan. 8, Team 1073 “The Force” will attend the season’s kickoff event at Southern New Hampshire University where they will see the 2011 game field for the first time, gather information regarding rules and regulations, and receive their official kit of parts, which includes motors, sensors, hardware, transmissions, software packages, control systems and batteries. Each team then has six weeks to design, build and prepare their robot for competition.

Throughout the fall, the team members and their 18 mentors have been busy training and prepping for the six-weeks they have to construct their robot, a time period known by FIRST participants as the build season.

“We usually start off with a lot of training,” said Tim Carr, vice president of the electrical team. “We put all of the rookie members through the shop training and we use all different tools, and then individual training with any sub-group they pick.”

The team follows a business structure, with each sub-group consisting of a co-CEO or vice president. The team has a variety of individual groups including mechanical, electrical, business management, design and software development.

Though the students won’t know anything of what the 2011 challenge will consist of until the Jan. 8 kick-off, the team spends the off-season recruiting new members, training, communicating with sponsors and holding a number of fundraisers.

Hollis/Brookline High School is the team’s largest sponsor. They contribute approximately $6,000 each year; however, the team needs to accrue $20,000 to offset the cost of the robot and the tools and equipment needed throughout the season.

The team receives corporate sponsorship from a variety of companies including BAE and Technology Garden, and the students initiate their own fundraising events as well.

This year, the team sold discounted Crotched Mountain ski lift tickets, which raises approximately $700 each year and sales of Hex Bugs – small motorized toys that crawl around and respond to noise and obstacles – which Hay hopes will bring $1,500 to the team. During the off-season the team engages the community by introducing Girl Scouts to robotics, visiting Math Olympiad students, and hosting FIRST Lego League and Junior FIRST Lego League competitions.

“Our business team is currently doing US FIRST Girls, which is their initiative to get more girls involved in the program no matter what their (interest),” said co-CEO Genevieve Beaulieu.

“US FIRST Girls, the program we founded for the Chairman’s Project last year, has been acknowledged in over 40 states and four countries,” said business sub-group vice president, Meg Graves. “Last year, we worked on getting more girls involved in FIRST programs, and within our team this year, we have over 30 females as opposed to our 14 last year.”

The business team stays busy during the off-season by writing donation letters, organizing transportation and organizing community initiatives like US FIRST Girls.

“This year, I organized a great opportunity for our team to raise a good chunk of money really easily,” said Graves. “I contacted the NH Motor Speedway and organized our team to clean up a portion of the speedway for a few hours on Sept. 17. We had a grand total of 40 students and mentors participate that day, and it is a source of fundraising that we actually found to be fun. We are considering organizing another clean-up day in the spring.”

The event raised nearly $800. According to Beaulieu, the team has also lent money to schools in Africa and is currently trying to establish a sister school relationship with a FIRST team in Costa Rica.

“They don’t have as much technology down there so we are trying to send some and hopefully a couple of the students will actually be able to travel down there and speak with their curriculum coordinators,” Beaulieu said.

Their community initiatives are all part of the team’s goal to win the coveted Regional Chairman’s Award. The award is given to the team that best exemplifies FIRST and was created to keep the focus of the FIRST Robotics Competition on the ultimate goal of transforming the culture and the surrounding community in ways that will inspire and encourage respect and interest in the science and technology field.

Though receiving the Chairman’s Award is one of the team’s greatest goals, they also incorporate more attainable goals each season.

According to Hay, last year the team focused significantly on the communication between each sub-group.

Part of attaining this goal was to incorporate a design team, which involves a limited number of students to ensure decisions are made quickly. The day after the Saturday kick-off event, the design team gets together to determine strategy and structure for the build season. They then approach the team within four to five days to discuss their plan and communicate their strategy to the different sub-groups.

“So everybody on the team knows what software is working on, everybody on the team knows what mechanical is working on, so there is no surprises,” Hay said. “So by the time we got to the competition last year, they understood what we were doing and how we were playing the game because we had communicated to everybody. So it worked really, really well.”

Another goal for Hay is the students approach to gracious professionalism. “Gracious professionalism is a general overall theme for FIRST,” Hay said. “How to work well together in a professional manner – that’s what we really push on the team. These kids are really, really good kids. They are so professional and will jump at the opportunity to take more responsibility.”

For Carr, his personal goal as the vice president of the electrical team is to standardize the techniques and process the sub-group uses to make the build season more efficient. Though the build season is chaotic and stressful, Carr and Beaulieu say that it’s rewarding and that the off-season training is essential to their success.

“When we take pictures of each individual person we usually have them go up and point to a particular part of the robot they have worked on and we can have almost everyone point to a particular part and say ‘I actually worked on that. That’s something I did personally,’” Carr said.

And that’s the point. “It is a lot of time and maybe a lot of stress on the kids, but they all want to come back every day,” Beaulieu said. “It’s not like they are being forced to build this robot. The students run everything – the kids feel like they own the robot. They own the team.”

Not only do the students have a number of career opportunities by working under professional engineers, there are other benefits as well. “I can see the kids walking down the hallway and I can tell which ones are on FIRST because of their manneriwsms and the way they treat each other in the classroom,” she said. “These kids have learned a lot about working with others and how to be successful.”

For more information visit http://theforceteam.com.