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Robots in Disguise

Featured Photo from Robots in Disguise

In case you haven’t noticed, robot-building teams at Hagerty and Oviedo High are some of the fastest-growing and most career-building clubs on campus.

Talk about under the radar. Robotics clubs, like those at Hagerty and Oviedo high schools, attract more than 300,000 students a year from across the globe, but they often remain virtually unknown outside of their tight circles of enthusiasts.

“I had someone at the school say to me, ‘Your club meets more than any other club and longer than any other sport, yet it receives little attention,’” says Thad Beckert, an engineer with Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training and the volunteer coach and mentor for the Oviedo High Robotics Club.

Lauded or not, there’s no denying that members of these clubs put in countless hours from August through March building robots for friendly competition.

“We don’t generate revenue,” adds Po Dickison, media specialist at Hagerty High School and head robotics coach. “You don’t read about it, but these kids deserve a lot more attention than they really get. They are the inventors of the future.”

They may not generate income, but robotics clubs also receive no funding. Each year, the clubs are required to hold fundraisers like car washes and solicit money from local businesses. For Hagerty and Oviedo, the Oviedo Woman’s Club has been a major donor. Money is also gained through corporate sponsors such as Siemens and Lockheed Martin, who have a vested interest in students who make up these programs. Thad knows five former robotics club students who have been hired by his company.

“Florida is one of the most competitive robotic states in the country,” Thad says. “We have been successful producing more world champion teams than any other state.” 

Anatomy of a Robot
Scholastic robotics competitions are the brainchild of Segway inventor Dean Kamen. In 1989, he founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) as a way for K-12 students to become science and technology leaders via mentor-based robotics programs. FIRST is the leading STEM engagement program for children and young adults worldwide.

Each September, robotics club members begin to program software and build robots to be used in game-like competitions based on tasks released annually by FIRST. Competitions are held on a platform in which the objective usually includes putting an object in a goal of some sort.

“They go to battle using their minds,” says Po. “It allows kids who excel in math or science to have an outlet.”

Hagerty High boasts 48 students in its club and fields two teams: the Mechromancers and the Metalmorphs.

The Oviedo High club, founded by Thad and his daughter four years ago, sports two teams as well: Den in Black and Roarbots (both monikers are a nod to Oviedo High’s lion mascot). Thad’s daughter has since moved on to Georgia Tech and his son is now a member of the club.

Thad explains that the competition begins with qualifying events followed by the state championships in February. Winners move forward to regionals in March, then 200 teams are invited to the world championship in April.

“The world championship – that’s our goal this year,” says Thad. His 2015-2016 Roarbots made it to the state championship level for the first time.

More than Meets the Eye
Po stresses that robotics clubs are not only about constructing a machine for competition. They are also about life lessons: fundraising, team building, sportsmanship, collaboration, and being mentors.

Plus, the clubs are open to anyone.

“There are so many facets to the program, the kids don’t have to know how to build a robot to be part of the team,” says Po. “We need creative people to write scripts, shoot video, draw sketches, and take pictures.”

Po explains that the robotics competitions require each team to submit a one-minute video documenting the team’s year (accounting for 25 percent of the team’s score) and an engineering book that details how the robot was built (another 25 percent). The actual performance of the team’s robot in the competition itself determines the final 50 percent of the score.

Niharika “Niha” Maity, a freshman at the University of Florida, was a Hagerty High School Robotics Club member for two years. With Niha’s leadership, Hagerty’s Mechromancers team made the World Robotics Championship this past spring. A malfunction in their robot hindered their performance in the world championship, but the team still finished 12th.

“It was the first time we went that far,” Niha says. “It was disappointing, but it was a learning experience.”

While Niha is still interested in pursuing pre-med at UF, her experience with FIRST and the robotics club has her considering biomedical engineering as well.

“I wanted to be a doctor since I was in third grade,” Niha says. “I have always wanted to make people feel better.”

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