Entering Second Year, Tri-County Robotics Program Going Strong
Team preps for Boston FIRST competition.
It's early afternoon, and the students in the Tri-County Regional Vocational Technical High School's robotics team are debating which programming language they should use for their robot.
Mohammed Bakr, the teacher overseeing the team, lays out their options: C++, MATLAB or LabVIEW.
A student chimes in, saying he heard LabVIEW, which the team used last year, might have hurt them in terms of time. Another counters that it was unsure whether it was the language chosen or a lack of battery power.
Bakr steps in and reminds the team that, while there is some time to weigh the merits of each language, a decision must be made soon.
This is the second year the team has been in existence, and it is looking to build off of its strong finish in the Boston FIRST competition last year.
Bakr said the school had been thinking of creating such a team for some time.
"The school and [Superintendent Barbara] Renzoni had been wanting to do a robotics team for a number of years, but we did not feel we had the resources to do it until last year," he said. "Last year, everything came together."
Bakr said the school's engineering program reached maturity last year — it had, for the first time, four years worth of students.
"We started last year, and we did very well," he said. "We went to the Boston regional competition, where 54 teams competed, 50 of which were veteran teams."
He said the team came in tenth.
The team is currently working blind, as the competition specifications are kept a secret until Jan. 8.
"Last year, teams were supposed to build a soccer-playing robot, to play both offense and defense," he said. "As a field, they used the Boston University hockey arena."
Teams, he said, are given six weeks before they must ship off their robots to FIRST. The competition itself takes place around the end of March or beginning of April.
Once the specifications are announced, Bakr said, things get intense.
"(After the announcement,) the kids are here every day after school, and through winter vacation," he said. "During the offseason, we meet once a week, for an hour or so, to touch base."
According to Bakr, the team has drawn a number of sponsors, including infotech company EMC, the US Army laboratories in Natick and even the Emerald Square JC Penney store. Sponsors are necessary, he said, because of the high cost of competing — team expenses will reach $14,000-$15,000.
Fundraising is also used. At this meeting, engineering teacher Angela Batt is consulting with the team group tasked with raising funds.
"They're thinking of boys' and girls' bracelets, which can be ordered with the school colors," she said. "The kids think they'll sell easily."
The students, however, must decide how much to charge for the bracelets. Too little, and not enough is raised — too much, and they won't sell.
Batt became involved with the team last year, and said she hopes the team can improve.
"Absolutely," she said. "I think last year was a great year, and we learned a lot."
Tri-County senior Connor Parquette, a member of the team for two years, said he joined because it intersects with his interests.
"I'm interested in robotics in general, and the program was interesting to me," he said. "I'm planning to go to college for mechanical engineering and robotics."