by Sarah Crisp

Take one look at Wikipedia; and you’ll see that the list of honors bestowed upon engineer and inventor Dean Kamen includes humanitarian, technological, honorary degrees, and Presidential awards. But ask this unassuming entrepreneur what he thinks his greatest achievement has been; and he probably won’t point you to the Segway, the Sling-Shot water distiller, the Stair Climbing wheelchair, the wearable dialysis machine, or the robotic arm for veterans. My guess is that he would point you to his non-profit: FIRST.

For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology – FIRST – combines the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology. The FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) is known as the ultimate “Sport for the Mind.” Three hundred thousand high school students from over fifty countries as far away as Israel, China, and the UK compete. Under strict rules, limited resources, and an intense six-week “build season”, teams of students are challenged to plan, design, build, and program industrial-size robots to play a difficult field game with, and against, like-minded competitors.

Volunteer mentors lend their time and talents to guide each team through their build and competition seasons. While helping students hone their teamwork skills, they are reminded why they followed a career in engineering. As with any other varsity sport, qualifying competitions are followed by district and state championships. Only the most competitive teams make it to the FRC World Championships. Unlike other varsity sports, “Everyone can turn pro,” quotes enthusiastic FIRST supporter and world-famous actor, Morgan Freeman.

But in the context of FIRST, “competitive” has a very different set of criteria than in most sports. A rookie team competing in their first season may make it to the championships because they had help from another local team; they may have built a robot that only does one thing, but does it reliably and consistently, terms highly valued in engineering. A FIRST Hall of Fame team may celebrate a win that demonstrates their robot’s versatility in all aspects of the game, while also supporting a rookie team with gracious professionalism throughout their inaugural competition.

One such FIRST Hall of Fame team is based on the Connecticut Shoreline in Old Lyme. FIRST Team 236 – The TechnoTicks – was founded in 1999 by a group of like-minded, forward-thinking students, teachers, and mentors with an interest in cutting edge technology. Coming from Lyme and Old Lyme, the team’s logo couldn’t be anything but a tick, and their tagline reflects their engineering infliction: “It’s in your blood.” It’s clear talking to this group, now entering their 17th season, that once bitten, the robotics bug stays with you – for life.

Whether a welder, an electrician, a programmer, a photographer, a budding DJ or a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering,the Ticks make use of any skills available and will return the favor with the “hardest fun you’ve ever had!” Tick mentors come from all engineering backgrounds and organizations including Electric Boat, Sikorsky, Aerocision Engineering, Dominion, Amtrak, and academia, as well as programming and P.R. backgrounds. Knowing how to build planes, trains, and automobiles has its advantages when designing and building a FIRST robot.

At 10:30 a.m. on the first Saturday in January, teams gather to watch NASA broadcast the game launch from Dean Kamen’s house in New Hampshire. Internet forums and social media have been hot since the “teaser” was revealed in September. The Ticks join other teams sponsored by Dominion Millstone Power Station at their training center to hear about the latest challenge. They already know that one of FIRST’s national sponsors – Disney – helped establish “SteamWorks” as their 2017 game theme, and some team members are already sketching team uniforms which include steam punk welding goggles, bowler hats, and leather flying jackets. “Even the most introverted techno-geek becomes an extrovert with FIRST,” says Liz Frankel whose son is a high school junior and daughter is a member of Lyme/Old Lyme Middle School’s FIRST Lego League robotics team, ‘The Luna-Ticks’. “In a world dominated by sports, film, and music personalities, it’s so great to see these students   celebrate and be celebrated for, their geek-i-ness,” she smiles.

This year’s game simulates a Jules Verne-style character attempting to launch his steam-powered airship. Verne and H. G. Wells are often referred to as the “Fathers of Science Fiction.” Steampunk is a genre of science fiction with a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery. Think Phileas Fogg travelling Around the World in 80 Days, or Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. “The airship needs a particular pressure of steam and a particular configuration of gears to launch, so we need a robot capable of picking up and placing multiple gears into a particular pattern, shooting fuel elements (large, neon green wiffle balls) into a ‘furnace,’ and of course defending our three-team alliance against attacks from other teams,” explains Lyme-Old Lyme High School senior Cole Dushin. The first 15 seconds of each game is an autonomous period, when the robot’s drivers have to stand back and hope that their pre-programmed robot scores high. That is followed by a 2 minute 15 second game where the drivers take control of their robots, adhering to their game plan, and adapting it in response to their opposition’s strategy.

The Ticks have benefitted over the years from donations to the high school of cutting-edge equipment (pun intended), funded by the Lyme Old Lyme Education Foundation (LOLEF.org). A Tormach CNC Milling machine, a 3-D printer and most recently a state of the art plasma cutter have enabled students to manufacture highly specialized parts, molds, and prototypes for use in electronic vehicle design, passive solar energy machines, robotic components and more.

For his part, Verne would be proud of the creativeness with which the team is approaching the design of their robot. But like any real-life engineering challenge, ideas must be grounded in reality and the team learns as much from their failures as they do from their successes. “Let’s go for a 6-wheel West Coast chassis,” says Anna Catlett, an LOLHS junior. “It has limited chains and sprockets and, well … we’re not very good with chains, are we?” The whole team applauds remembering the time when a chain broke during autonomous mode at their 2014 game in St. Louis. The robot spun 90 degrees and shot a 2’ diameter air-filled canvas-covered ball into the audience.

Fast-forward to March 4th, 2017 and the Tick’s first competition at Waterbury (CT) High School. On Friday the robot is inspected for mechanical safety and to ensure that it meets the limitations for height and weight. The team has already handed in a spreadsheet detailing the cost of every part of the robot, from the aluminum box tubing for the chassis to the bulb in the spotlight used to help guide the robot to its target. Then they have a few hours to run their robot, finesse their autonomous mode, and scout the capabilities of competitor and alliance teams from across Connecticut before the qualifying rounds start on Saturday morning.

As the first game starts, the bleachers are filled with parents, grandparents, teachers, and friends all dressed in team colors, hoping that their team’s robot can achieve everything they have planned, designed, engineered and manufactured over the six week build season. The atmosphere is part high school basketball game, part rock concert, part NASCAR, and part University Science Fair. Team banners cover the walls of the gymnasium and engineers-turned-cheerleaders are certainly not afraid to get up and dance.

The weekend turns out to be a great success for the Techno-Ticks. With a record of 15 wins and 2 losses out of 17 games played, the team walks away with the coveted Blue Banner – Alliance Captains and winners of the Waterbury District Competition; and with it, a ticket to the Regional Finals in New Hampshire in April. Another opportunity to finesse their robot before their trip to St. Louis for the FIRST World Championships – guaranteed to them as a FIRST Hall of Fame team.

As the Ticks meet for a round-up after the competition, the mentors note the way in which every member of the team has played their part; and that without each and every one of them, today’s win could not have been achieved. “And not one broken chain!” says Anna, as the team breaks into a spontaneous round of applause.

You can follow the team’s progress at http://www.236technoticks.com.

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