Edwin L. Aguirre
More than 30 middle-school and high-school students from the Merrimack Valley spent six weeks at UMass Lowell, designing and building a robot for the international FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition. The team made a big splash in the first round, garnering the “Rookie All-Star Award” at the North Shore District Competition. The students will advance to the next round of the contest, which is part of a global competition that draws more than 75,000 participants from 24 countries.
“We are extremely proud of the students and mentors and their amazing finish in their very first contest,” says Dean Joseph Hartman of the Francis College of Engineering. “It has been fun to witness the students’ energy and excitement for engineering while working away in our campus lab over the past several weeks. We look forward to more building in the future!”
The students put their computer and engineering skills to the test by constructing a robot that can complete a variety of tasks and games. Their creation, christened “Scorpio,” is built with materials — and limited instructions — provided by the contest’s organizers. During the six-week building frenzy, the youngsters learned to use power tools and run sophisticated computer programs under the guidance of engineers from companies such as Analog Devices, Kronos Inc. and IBM. Many of these mentors are UMass Lowell alumni.
The students — who hail from Dracut, Haverhill, Lowell, Methuen, North Reading and Tyngsborough, along with Salem, N.H., and include participants in the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Lowell — are competing under Team 5962 “perSEVERE.”
UMass Lowell donated the use of its MakerSpace facility in Falmouth Hall on North Campus for the team to conduct its work. The students’ efforts are supported by a total of $11,000 in grants from NASA and Analog Devices.
The team completed Scorpio in early March, bagging and sealing the robot before shipping it to the competition. During the first part of the contest, the robot entries perform the assigned tasks autonomously; in the second half, the robots are driven by students remotely. If successful, Team 5962 will move on to the New England regional round in Hartford, Conn., in April. Winners will then advance to the world championships in St. Louis, Mo. More than 3,100 teams worldwide are participating in the contest, which was founded by Dean Kamen of Bedford, N.H., inventor of the Segway, among other innovations.
A Roller-Coaster of Emotions
Scorpio measures approximately 2½ by 2½ feet and stands 18 inches high. The unit weighs about 120 pounds and is powered by a 12-volt rechargeable battery.
“It had been a huge amount of work, full of intense challenges and learning; an exhausting roller-coaster of emotions, enthusiasm and engineering,” says Mike Johnston, the team’s lead mentor who is a software systems engineering manager at Analog Devices, based in Norwood.
“We are all rookies — this is the first time the students and I are joining the FIRST competition,” adds Johnston, who graduated from UMass Lowell in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in information systems. “We are very grateful to Dean Hartman for allowing us to use the MakerSpace. The facility is terrific — it has plenty of room for students to work together or in separate groups and provides access to state-of-the-art tools and 3-D printers.”
Emily Satterfield, a sophomore at Lowell High School and leader of Scorpio’s electrical team, described the project as “very exciting, very intense.”
Connor Johnston agrees. “It was really crazy and stressful, but it was a lot of fun,” says the junior from Dracut High School who is co-captain of Team 5962. “We learned a lot about leadership, teamwork, problem-solving and building self-confidence.”
For fellow Dracut High junior Mitt Bailey, co-captain of the team’s robot side, the hands-on training they received is invaluable. “We learned how to program with Java and how to use tools to build things. The experience has inspired me to pursue a degree in aerospace engineering and perhaps work at NASA someday,” he says.
Adds Brendan Cronin, a Lowell High sophomore and member of the mechanical engineering team: “The project is not just about winning the competition, but the things we learned along the way. That’s more important.”
Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney says the FIRST Robotics Competition represents a great use of the MakerSpace. “To see young people interacting with our students and their mentors and see the excitement on their faces as they make use of this cutting-edge facility was very rewarding,” she says.
“Our investment on such lab spaces will reap us huge benefits in the future. They offer a great pathway for new graduates entering the workforce. Robotics is obviously going to be a big part of the state’s future, and this competition taps into many of our academic programs and strengths, including engineering, computer science and entrepreneurship and innovation. I can see some startups coming from this student group in the future. They are very creative!”