T.C. Williams robotics team kicks into high gear

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T.C. Williams robotics team kicks into high gear
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By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)

After just two years in existence, the T.C. Williams High School robotics team seems set for greatness, having finished second in a regional tournament and competed in district competition April 7-9.

The team is made up of 21 current and former science, technology, engineering and math students at the school involved in a wide variety of areas like programming, electrics and building. They are coached and mentored by local resident Dan Solomon, managing director of media company Litton Entertainment in D.C. Team members do their work on weekends at Tech Shop, a maker space in Crystal City.

Teams are given six weeks to design, build and test robots in a contest that changes each year. The competition is organized by international youth organization For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. There are two core values at its heart: gracious professionalism that embraces respect amid competition and so-called “coopetition,” which emphasizes both cooperation and competition between teams simultaneously.

Alliances at tournaments are formed between three teams, who each bring a robot to competition. A game is between two alliances, and last two minutes and 30 seconds, with alliances competing together throughout tournaments.

The Titans compete in the Chesapeake District against more than 100 local high schools, and last month finished second out of 40 teams in the FIRST Robotics Greater D.C. regional competition at Walt Whitman High School.

That took T.C. to the Chesapeake District Championships at the Xfinity Center at the University of Maryland, where it struggled due to communications issues with its robot. Despite the loss, the team is now ranked No. 44 out of 132 in the district, and members have dreams of a berth in the world championships if it can achieve further success next season.

The process of building, designing and competing is something that several team members said excited them, especially as it has very tangible results.

“Most of the things I do in school, when I finish the assignment I just see a number or a grade, and that’s all there is,” said sophomore Drew Fisher, one of the team’s programmers. “There’s no end product that I can be proud of. But with robotics, I can see all the work I’ve done. I can see all the work I’ve done with other people, and we have something that started out as a pile of metal pieces and it ends up being able to do a lot of really cool stuff.”

At the district tournament, the game was entitled “FIRST Stronghold,” a medieval theme that required alliances to breach their opponent’s outer defenses and weaken their castle tower by catapulting plastic boulders into various targets. The outer defenses changed with each bout through audience selection. Points were scored for getting through those outer defenses and for scoring hits with boulders, while each alliance had to defend its own castle.

But building a robot is about so much more than the physical specimen, as several students are involved in the business side of operations. Sophomore Bryce Cook looked to raise money to fund the team, which operated on a budget of around $14,000 this year to fund tournament entry fees and other expenses.

Next year, Cook said he anticipates needing around $30,000 to cover entry to more high-profile events. The business team reaches out to local businesses, city council and the chamber of commerce for funds, and has plenty of other factors to consider in marketing.

“They code the robot and build it, but it’s up to the business team to make the money and get the money,” Cook said. “We send emails, we do marketing, and we have to think of how we want our robotics team to look as far as logos and T-shirts. We have to think about what we want to bring to competition, if we want to bring pins or brochures.”

The programming side presents its own challenges, especially as the code needs constant attention to ensure the robot functions as desired.

“With FIRST, I’ve been able to not only bring it in and make it real, I’ve been able to sort through so many different styles of programming, different ways of approaching a challenge, because the code I wrote for the robot wasn’t actually what I would consider finished until last Friday at district championships,” said junior Michael Morris, another programmer. “It was very much an iterative process. It’s a very trying process.”

Meanwhile, safety is a key point of emphasis at competitions. Junior Hillary Aguilar is one of those responsible for the team’s safety training both before and at competitions, with a safety manual provided to teams outlining how to stay safe.

Beyond building robots and making them work, team members have learned other valuable lessons they feel will stand them in good stead for the future.

“One of the most important things is that FIRST is more than robots,” said Fisher. “There’s the whole business aspect of it, and then there’s all these different things that go together in order to make this competition that seems to be centered around robots, but it’s really about working with other people, and it all prepares you for how it’s going to be in your life when you work for some company and you need to work with someone else.”

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