WHS robotics team

Woodland High School’s FIRST robotics team, the Beaver Bots.

Woodland High School’s robotics team, the Beaver Bots, won an Inspire Award and qualified to compete in the state finals which took place last week, Jan. 26. The Beaver Bots are one of 140 high school robotics teams across the state taking part in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics Competition. 

Elizabeth Talvitie, a science teacher, serves at the robotics team’s primary coach with her colleague and fellow science teacher Stephanie Miller. Talvitie volunteered to coach the team three years ago as it would be the only extracurricular Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) club offered at Woodland High School. 

However, when Talvitie volunteered, she had no prior experience with robotics or computer programming.

“I’m a big fan of LEGO and although that’s not part of the high school level robotics competition, I was very interested in robotics and being part of the only STEM club offered at the high school,” she said in a news release. “Steve Rippl, the district’s IT director, was instrumental that first year helping get the club off the ground by teaching us how to code and helping to build the robot kits.”

Now that the club is up and running, the students manage all of the team’s responsibilities.

“My role now is to serve as a facilitator and to ensure everyone tracks their work, a key task in the competition,” Talvitie said in the release. “Our students have learned so much that they handle all of the other elements – building, programming, and project management.”

FIRST starts off each year-long season with a different theme including detailed tasks and a list of specifications on what parts teams can use to build their robots. This season’s theme was Skystone. In a timed match of two-and-a-half minutes, teams had to program their robots to travel autonomously from a starting point to pick up building materials — blocks called “stones” — and then transport the blocks to a building area. Once in the building area, two human operators controlled a second robot to construct a building. Elements from the task such as number of blocks moved, building height, successful autonomous travel, and more, are assigned points with the highest-scoring team winning the match. 

The team divides itself into the three groups — builders, programers and project managers — and starts each season by brainstorming ideas for the robot and drafting starting designs using the specifications provided by the FIRST League organizers. Communication and teamwork between each of the three groups leads to the success of the team as a whole.

“While it can be hard to get everyone to agree, everyone’s really supportive of one another,” Adelia Menn, a junior who’s been involved in Woodland Public Schools’ robotics programs since the eighth grade said in the release. “I think it’s nice how everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and we work as a team to help one another out.”

Following the initial planning stages, the builders create the robot, making modifications as needed along the way. The programmers use a graphical programming language with additional code to program all of the different elements of the robot which may include a variety of engines and moving pieces such as arms, claws, or legs. Programmers must also create artificial intelligence for the robot to allow it to move autonomously without human interaction for part of the competition.

The team’s project managers create and maintain the “Engineering Notebook” which includes compiling all the building plans, tracking any design changes and maintains the team’s budget along with ordering parts. 

At each competition, the concept of teamwork broadens beyond a single team, as teams form alliances with a second, different team for each of five matches. For each match, two alliances — a total of four teams per match — compete against each other. Since alliances change with each match, teams that partner in one match might be competitors in the next.

“The focus on changing teamwork creates a dynamic where teams are constantly analyzing all of the teams’ robots to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each,” Talvitie explained in the release. “During a match, all 15 team members from both teams in an alliance work together to make sure their robots work together to complete the task successfully.”

According to the release, the Beaver Bots won an Inspire Award for their work on their Engineering Notebook with judges focusing on their plan for the future and also won third place for their robot design in interleague competition. 

“The judges were impressed with how organized our team was, particularly with the team’s sustainability plan to keep the program going,” Talvitie said in the release. “The team really wowed the judges.”

Since the robotics club needs new kits, specific parts, and entry fees each year, a plan for sustaining the club both economically as well as attracting new members is instrumental for the club’s future success.

“As a team, we have to create a sustainable business model including ways to generate funds for our team each year as well as plans for outreach to recruit new teammates,” Ruby Heidgerken, a junior who has been participating with Woodland Public Schools’ robotics programs since seventh grade said in the release. “The robotics team needs a lot of funds so developing partnerships with local businesses and thinking of fundraiser ideas is key to a successful ongoing program.”

In addition to being the project manager for the Beaver Bots, Heidgerken also plays for Woodland High School’s volleyball team.

“Half of our robotics team is made up of student athletes,” she said in the release. “In addition, half our team is girls which makes the robotics team incredibly diverse.”

Juggling multiple extracurricular activities can be challenging, but for Heidgerken, timing was everything this season.

“The robotics team had a lot of turnover for project managers this season since maintaining the Engineering Notebook can be quite time-consuming,” she said in the release. “Fortunately, the volleyball season ended right when the needs of the robotics team ramped up.”

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