Q: How do you fill an arena with cheering teenagers?
A: Invite them to bring their robots.
From Robby to R2-D2 to WALL-E, robots have captured the imagination for decades; today, robots are inspiring creativity and problem-solving in McKinney ISD and classrooms across the country. They are also the catalyst for packed-out arenas at FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) events where bright young minds contend in a challenging contest of skill and ingenuity. McKinney students will be among the FRC competitors this spring thanks to $39,000 in grants generously awarded to the robotics programs at McKinney High School, McKinney North High School and McKinney Boyd High School.
In December, each of the McKinney ISD high school campuses was awarded a $6500 grant from the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) through FIRST in Texas and a matching grant of $6500 from JC Penney — a total of $39,000 to go toward robotics programs in the district. It’s the result of a grant application submitted by the robotics team coaches from each of McKinney’s three high school campuses. Pam McBride (McKinney High School), Sherri Hurley (McKinney North High School) and Steve Biles (McKinney Boyd High School), working alongside district grant writer Danny Ledbetter, prepared the application over a two-week period in November and received notification of the award in early December.
The funds pave the way for McKinney ISD to compete in the Dallas regional FRC to take place March 29-31 at the Dallas Convention Center. The grant from TWC covers the cost of registration while the grant from JC Penney will be applied to additional expenses associated with the competition: travel, tools, supplies, team attire and any other materials necessary to compete.
“FIRST Robotics is an innovative, student-centered program that emphasizes not only science, math and technology skills, but also fosters creativity, teamwork, leadership and professionalism,” says Boyd robotics coach Steve Biles. FIRST hosts the regional and national FIRST Robotics Competition events that attract thousands of competitors each year. Described on their website as “the varsity sport for the mind,” the FIRST Robotics Competition “combines the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology.”
And it is rigorous. The competition challenges each student team to design and program a robot that can perform a specified task. This must be accomplished with a limited budget while adhering to strict rules and time limits. At the nationwide kickoff event, held Saturday, January 7, all competing teams received the same basic building materials at the same time with the same directive: build a robot that can play basketball. On a special court featuring a total of eight goals, three ramps and a barrier, each robot must score points in a three-team alliance against an opposing coalition. And, if navigating obstacles and attempting to put a ball through a basketball hoop via robot isn’t challenging enough, teams will also enjoy contending with vigorous robot defenders who, in certain areas of the court, are allowed to physically stop their opponents by ramming them out of range. Beyond crafting a well-designed robot, strong alliances will be essential to success on the court.
With the challenge set before them, it’s now up to the students to conceive and construct the most effective robot in a relatively short, six-week period. “It’s an extremely fast-paced test, test, test, build, build, build process from the kickoff to the tag and ship date on February 21,” says Biles.
And, like the robots they are building, these teams have many moving parts. Like a small corporation in action, the students are responsible for everything from designing and programming to marketing and t-shirt design. To get organized, the McKinney teams attended a workshop at Raytheon before the kickoff event and received guidance from veteran robotics teams. “This really encouraged us and gave us some ideas for organizing our team,” says McBride. McKinney High School freshman Meredith Eiland developed a team website to facilitate communication and keep everyone heading in the same direction. She appreciates the student-led, group dynamic of FRC. “It’s really exciting to learn new things and explore new possibilities together.”
While robotics teams from McKinney have competed in other events previously, this is the first year that McKinney ISD has entered a competition as large as the FIRST Robotics Competition and is the only district in the state to field three teams this year. If the McKinney teams win, they will move on to compete in the national US FIRST competition in St. Louis, Missouri on April 25-28.
Biles is grateful for the chance to compete. “We are thrilled that our students now have an opportunity to participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition, thanks to the generous grants from the Texas Workforce Commission and the JC Penney Corporation. They will no doubt be enriched by the experience!” Andrew Lenczycki, a senior at McKinney Boyd who plans to pursue a career in engineering, reflects the same gratitude. “This is a huge honor,” he says. “We are really appreciative that the sponsors would fund our endeavors.”
Participation in FRC has sparked increased student interest in the McKinney ISD robotics teams. “It is exciting to add new members as more and more students at MHS hear about our FIRST team,” McBride says. And, more students interested in robotics is a good thing because as they apply principles of science, technology, engineering and math to construct machines that were once the stuff of science fiction, our students create for themselves very real future opportunities for success in an increasingly technology-driven global economy.
And that is definitely worth cheering about.
For additional information on the FIRST Robotics Competition, visit their website at www.usfirst.org/roboticsprograms/frc.
For additional information on McKinney ISD, contact Shane Mauldin, MISD Communications Specialist, at 469-742-4007 or firstname.lastname@example.org.