Weatherly may seem like a tiny hamlet of bygone grandeur, but to the nearly 600 participants at Saturday's FIRST Tech Challenge - Pennsylvania State Robotics Championship, it was the center of the high tech universe.
The all-day Championship drew 28 teams from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia, with three teams crossing the border from Canada.
FIRST, an acronym for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," was founded in 1989 as a means to inspire kids to discover engineering by creating design competitions.
"This is an engineering design competition," explained Steven Kew-Goodale - founder of the Weatherly Institute for Robotics and Engineering and host of the 2010 Championship held at the Weatherly Middle School Complex on March 6. "We gave the kids an engineering problem to solve last September. The problem was in a design game format."
"They take the information, set up a design to accomplish the problem, organize as teams, analyze the problem, and come up with a synthesis. They learn that teamwork is important in engineering. They do programing to make the robot work using high level programing languages and real-world software."
To find out what the competition was all about, the question was raised to Nick Lolli and Tim Hackett of the Gear Team of Phoenixville High School of Phoenixville. "We've been preparing since last summer," Lolli said. "We started when we received a video explaining the challenge, then deciding how we would build our robot, and how we would score points."
After brainstorming the challenge of designing a robot to fit within a fixed cubic size, one that would collect and fire Whiffle Balls according to specifications, and receiving a parts kit, their coach pulled together a crew of 20 volunteers for the challenge.
"We started out trying to shoot the balls with a catapult but that was too inaccurate," Hackett explained. They settled on a continuous propulsion system using opposing rubber coated wheels.
Each round runs two minutes and 30 seconds. During the first 30 seconds, the robots were auto-programed. Hackett, who was responsible for his team's design, used sensors during the auto-programming period to guide the team's robot towards releasing balls from the storage stacks and gathering them into the robot's hopper.
At the end of 30 seconds, the control of the robot switched to a hand-held controller connected to a lap top computer. The directions from the computer were sent by a wireless Bluetooth signal to the robot's controller. The robots were allowed to propel their balls either to a low goal for one point or to a high goal for five points. For the last 30 seconds, the robots could fire away at a distant target bin, gaining ten points for each success.
To foster teamwork, instead of facing off one against another, in each round, two teams, randomly selected, played against two other teams. Teams had to work together with partners they may have never previously met, or had previously competed against. They would have five opportunities to score points with five different alliances.
"Teams actually support their potential opponents on the field," explained Goodale. "We call it gracious professionalism. In the pit, there are teams having their first exposure to this kind of stuff are parked next to teams that have been here for three or four years and won last year. What gracious professionalism means is those teams that are experienced are willing and eager to help those teams that aren't."
On the field were a wide variety of robots and teams. Among the most colorful, with both the robot and the team members dressed in Polynesian outfits, was Team Tiki from Mclean, VA. "It's our second year at the FIRST Tech Challenge," said coach George Gonzolez of his team of family and friends, five girls and one boy, ranging in age from 12 to 18 years.
"Before, we did First Lego League for Junior High students," he said. "The team went to the world championship for FLL. Last year, we stepped up to come here."
"Our robot's performing really well. The robot is really strong and solidly built. They spent months and months on this, redesigning it multiple times. It can score from any point."
"We had to keep the robot from scoring to its full potential. In the qualifying matches, you don't want to run up the score. You want to score and win, but you only want to win by one point."
"We are visited with a ton of boys and girls who are into engineering and robotics," said volunteer judge Rick Grant of Jim Thorpe. "I've been so impressed. It's unbelievable what these kids are learning, what they are building, and how they are able to explain to us why they made the decisions that they made on an engineering basis backed up with engineering notebooks. I am very inspired by this."
"The program is about kids," said Kew-Goodale. "Kids of all kinds, all backgrounds, they come from big schools, little tiny schools like Weatherly, home schools, and religious academies. It's offering them an opportunity that they can't get anywhere else."
"Winners win the prize of being best-and take home a trophy," he noted. "Ultimate winners are every kid that came here because they had to go through an engineering process. They all put up with the headaches and the heartbreaks-they all won by being here."