When Wellesley High School junior Rachel White gave us a heads up about a robotics club she launched this past spring with fellow student Ethan Chen, I was surprised that the school didn’t already have one. White quickly clarified for me that indeed the school already had a robotics club that participates in Botball competition—but the new club focuses on FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition.
“An [FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC)] robot presented us with a really exciting opportunity to design, build, and code a 125-pound robot,” says White, who has compiled an impressive range of robotics knowledge via classes at Wellesley High and Wellesley Middle School, participation in the Botball club, and five years of robotics summer camp.
The FIRST club, which started with six students in May, now has 27 members. So the appetite for more opportunities in this field are apparent.
“We were inspired to create an accessible and equitable team to increase the diversity of students in STEM activities, and open it to all no matter their background or experience with robotics,” says White, who notes that only 10%-20% of the students in her engineering and computer science classes/clubs are girls. The Wellesley Robotics Team (WRT) is 50% girls.
White and other students are urging Wellesley High’s administration to add a robotics course that goes beyond the Botball and Lego Mindstorm topics included in existing courses. Who knows, maybe that will inspire even more robotics and STEM clubs in the future at the school.
Building the robot
The Wellesley Robotics Team has been designing, building, and coding a prototype robot since October that White says “we have fun driving around!”
While you can choose to take part in many tasks in the FRC game, Wellesley’s team has focused on one: shooting a 7-inch ball into an 8-foot-high goal. The competition will take place virtually in January and February.
The Wellesley club has been meeting on Zoom for the past seven months, White says, to learn about the robot control board, electrical wiring, Java programming, CAD (Computer Aided Design), mechanical design, tool safety, and material use.
Building the robot in person has been more challenging, though they’ve been fortunate to have access to a team member’s garage, which has been outfitted as a shop.
“We meet in person several days a week so that no more than six people at a time are in our build space due to our COVID protocols,” White says. “With only six people in at a time, it can be hard to make progress, but we are persevering and pushing forward with our work.”
Club cofounders White and Chen also have plenty of other activities to keep them occupied. White’s a student representative to the School Committee and a WHS Student Congress member, while Chen is a swim team captain, co-leader of the New Student Ambassadors, and a member of the Keynote singers.
Among the club’s mentors is Brian Kelly, who teaches robotics at Wellesley Middle School, but parents also help out a lot, as do mentors from FRC teams around the state. The Wellesley Robotics Team is always looking for mentors to help with coding, CAD, and mechanical design/build tasks.
Kelly says it’s been a pleasure to mentor the club members given that most were in one or more of his classes during their time at the middle school. “It is a hard working, focused, and enthusiastic group who has taken on quite a challenge, not the least of which is organizing a workspace and schedule to maintain as safe an environment as possible during this pandemic,” he says.
“They are getting tremendous support from parents and I have been impressed by the forward thinking on the part of both students and parents, in the sense that they are very much focused, not only on their particular challenges for this team, this season, but also on the teams that will likely follow,” Kelly says.
The club members and parents are “building a foundation for students and the parents who will also find themselves inspired and engaged by the challenges of building a robot that actually does what one wants it to do. It ain’t easy…,” he says.
FIRST robotics teams are sponsor funded, and Wellesley’s team (Team Ultraviolet #8765) thanks MathWorks, Eliassen Group, NASA, FIRST, and Lowe’s for their support. Anyone interested in sponsoring or learning more about the nonprofit can email wellesleyFRC@gmail.com or check out its website.