Anything but ‘robotic’ for LHHS team
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
They master complex engineering problems, and document every step. But they also spar over names and paint color.
There’s a campaign for neon yellow struggling against the “don’t touch the bot” side.
“Really for me, if it looks ugly and works, it’s stayin’ ugly,” said Liberty Hill Robotics Team Build Lead Logan Ortiz. “I mean Makenzy (Webb) wants to paint the bot, she’s kind of our official painter because she does art.”
The debate is tongue in cheek, but anyone listening can tell there is a bit of realness to it.
“For marketing it sure would be nice for it to look nicer,” said Marketing Team Lead Monse Donogne, drawing laughs from the other three. “We definitely try to get nice angles.”
Ortiz shrugs and smiles.
“They got everything before I started putting duct tape on it,” he says to more laughter.
The robot didn’t get a paint job, but all the pieces came together and in the midst of the thoughtful debate and friendly funny jabs, the team wins.
The Robotics Team took third place this fall at the regional competition and are now locked in on a shot at a state title in Dallas the first week in December.
Third place is a bit deceiving, as the team was first among 10 small schools – its current classification – and third among all 17 schools, that included 5A and 6A schools.
“Since we’re still a 4A school we only had to go up against 10 other small schools,” Ortiz said. “It sounds like only a few, but in the grand scheme of things our robotics program is still just starting off. Those other schools’ programs were developed before ours, but we still ended up scoring first out of all 10 of them and third overall between large and small schools.”
They were confident in the work they had put in before the competition, making the finish that much more special.
“The satisfaction we got from hearing third place was amazing,” Donogne said.
It was a bit of a shock against the stiff competition.
“All of us just paused for a moment and tried to make sense of it,” Webb, the Display Team Lead, said. “It was amazing knowing we can compete with anyone.”
And while the celebration was sweet, all focus is on State.
“We’re over the moon about it,” said Project Manager Shanti Ramsingh. “It’s not over yet.”
The Robotics Team is in its fourth year, and after going to State the first two, the team missed it last year.
“That kind of gave us a reality check,” Ortiz said. “It reminded us we aren’t guaranteed to go every year. This year we really hit it hard and we came in during the summer as soon as they gave us the actual requirements for the bot. We came in the first day of school and started building the bot, setting up for marketing and display.”
The hard work now is about winning, but also about the program’s future.
“After falling short last year we learned that we needed to establish something that has the strength to put us all the way through to state and last beyond this year so we can build something for the new students to come in and be successful with,” Ramsingh said. “That’s why we came in during the summer because we wanted to strengthen the program as a whole.”
Each year, teams are given real world problems to solve with their robots, this year with required tasks to complete such as hanging power lines, move electrical equipment or lay conduit.
“At the kickoff they reveal the game theme and the game theme is always centered on like a real world situation where robots are starting to be used, and how we would solve that problem,” Ramsingh said. “This year it is all about putting power back up after a catastrophe and how robots can help with that.”
The robot itself is only a small portion of what the Liberty Hill team of 26 is scored on, with four other categories to focus on as well. The Engineer’s Notebook documents the entire build process and is 30 percent. A Marketing Presentation designed to pitch the robot to investors is 25 percent and the Team Display, which is how the project is presented, is 20 percent, and then team spirit is 10 percent. The robot is only 15 percent.
The team got a small hint of what to expect before they are on the clock for this year’s project, but prior to kick off, it was all summer preparation and projection, trying to be ready.
“They give us a little teaser video at the end of competition, and that’s when we started thinking about it,” Ortiz said. “So we started thinking about it in the summer and leading up to this kick off. That’s our game day right there.”
With four teams making up the whole, it is natural that the robot – meaning the build team – gets the most interest as students join.
“We do a survey of what team people want to be a part of and a good 75 percent of them check build and that’s it,” Donogne said. “Overall the robot is only 15 percent of our total score, so we definitely need people to be doing the other 85 percent, otherwise we don’t stand a chance,”
And with more functional than fun robots, the glamour of the build fades quickly for some.
“One of the issues with all the people who come in and want to build is they ask ‘Can we hit the other bot?’ and we’re like, ‘No,’” Ortiz said. “You can’t run into other bots, there’s no destruction of them, nothing like that.”
Once kickoff is over, the team puts its rigid schedule and game plan into action. Every minute and every step is critical in making sure they are ready after the six-week prep time.
“We do an analysis of the actual game, like what components are we going to need on the robot to actually perform the tasks,” Ramsingh said. “From there we make concept sketches then we pick the best ones to evaluate. We only have six weeks and every day in that six weeks counts.”
The build team may have to put it together, but the concept takes input from everyone.
“We get everyone in the club to try and design something,” Ortiz said. “When we got the instructions we got the entire build team together and wrote down everything on the board – everything we thought we needed, everything it should do and everything we thought could go wrong – and then as we went along we developed sketches, put it to prototypes and then we get into the bot. We don’t immediately get into building as much as some would like.”
After the regional competition the team gets seven more weeks to make changes and address issues to perfect every aspect before State. There is no resting and satisfaction with what’s been done.
“Speaking for me and the build team, we want it better,” Ortiz said. “A lot of times we’re never really satisfied with what we put out. Even in week six we were still making it better.
“We had an elevator arm that really didn’t get it done when it compared to everybody else’s. We came back and decided we were going to change it. We took the bot apart and disassembled it all and now we’re putting it back together.”
It’s a grind, but teammates help one another through the long hours.
“There are definitely times where I know I just don’t want to look at my Engineer’s Notebook anymore,” Ramsingh said, with teammates echoing her sentiment regarding their own slice of the robotics pie.
With four projects, including a robot, and unpredictable questions from judges, there are bound to be issues.
“There are always problems,” Ortiz said. “We went to one of the test drives and had one of our motor controllers catch fire. It nearly caught fire, it began to melt in half. We started getting frantic, but we went back and changed it out and it was just a faulty motor controller.”
Sometimes problems arise on the big stage, and even though it is all about science, those sometimes lead to some superstitions and funny stories.
Donogne, who is also one of the drivers for the robot, recalled a tense moment of nothingness with all eyes on her and the robot.
“There’s these keys that connect the motor and controller wirelessly. It didn’t work, and the robot wouldn’t move our first round, so this is like a little gag,” she said holding up the small component on a string around her neck.
“I’d say she’s pretty brave for going out there and driving,” Ortiz said of her one-time bad luck. “Even though the key wasn’t working she sat out there and still tried to make it work. She did nothing wrong, it was just that key. You have to have a certain air of confidence when you go out there.”
She said it was a totally different kind of pressure than her usual.
“I’m in marketing, I give my presentation with eyes focused on me, I can do this, too,” Donogne said. “But nothing compares to everyone watching when yours isn’t working right. It’s really awkward to stand there.”
Four teams, one goal
Everyone puts in long hours perfecting each aspect of the competition, dedicated to that common goal.
“It’s a lot of time, you just have to be willing to give up your time, every day,” Webb said.
All the motivation they need, though, comes from within.
“We drive each other,” Ortiz said. “It’s not like we’re competing against each other. We go through everyone’s part together. We definitely have each others’ backs.”
Each team understands the importance of the whole, and knows no one has it easy.
“I really think it is harder for (the other teams) because they have to look at their projects as a whole, where mine I can look at it and if I can’t make one piece work right now I can put it aside and work on a different pieces,” Ortiz said, specifically pointing to the Display Team’s work. “For them it is the whole that all has to be considered together.
“Shanti has this huge notebook she has to put together with all the information from what we’ve done throughout this six weeks. Monse (Donogne) has the marketing and has to look at the entire slideshow and get prices right, what it’s made out of.”
The team has grown together, has fun together, and plans to keep building a tradition of winning together.
“We all know that everything counts, every point matters,” Ramsingh said. “By helping each other get as many points as we can we help the team progress as a whole.”