2014-04-11 / Front Page

Team 58 is a friend, mentor

The South Portland robotics team trains other school teams, heads to New England competition
By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

Ross Usinger is field coach of the robotics team in South Portland. (Courtesy photo) Ross Usinger is field coach of the robotics team in South Portland. (Courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND – Team 58 of South Portland High School, the highest-ranked FIRST Robotics team in the state, has earned a spot to compete in the New England District Championship this weekend in Boston. If Team 58 prevails at the competition, they could be traveling to St. Louis two weeks later to participate in the FIRST World Championship. Going into the New England Championship, Team 58 is ranked 12th out of 163 teams in New England, the top 54 of which are competing in the New England Championship.

FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” is billed as the “Varsity sport for the mind.”

Ralph Newell, a physics teacher at South Portland High School, said the competition begins in December when the problem that needs to be solved is announced. Teams then begin to design, program and build robots that can fulfill the required tasks, and must do so in a six-week period. Last year, the goal was to have the robot shoot a Frisbee into a basket and, the year before, the robot had to shoot a basketball through a hoop. This year, Newell said, students had to create a robot that could put a twofoot wide exercise ball through a goal six feet above the ground.

FIRST Robotics competitions started in 1992; South Portland’s Team 58 is possibly the first and oldest team from Maine, said Steve Martin, an engineer from Fairchild Semiconductor who mentors the team.

The school began competing 19 years ago. Martin said for many years there were only three teams in Maine participating in FIRST Robotics competitions, but that number has grown in recent years to almost 20 teams.

This year, four rookie teams joined the competition for the first time, two of which Team 58 mentored—Thornton Academy in Saco and Cheverus High School in Portland. Team 58 also mentored Old Orchard Beach High School, which participated in the contest this year for the second time.

Alan Lukas, coach of Team 5286 from Thornton Academy, said the difficulty of being a rookie team is that they had no parts from previous years of students with prior experience. Lukas said members of Team 5286 came up with their own design, machined their own parts and even did their own welding at the Biddeford Regional Center of Technology.

Lukas said Team 58 helped Team 5286 early on by showing them their own design, sending a mentor to help and including Lukas in their email correspondence.

“I really felt like I was on their team. I knew about how they organized,” Lukas said. “They would have even sent a programmer down if we needed one. We had one, but our programmer did talk with theirs.”

“That it’s a competition is a ruse,” said Team 58 Capt. Russ Usinger, 18, of Deering High School. “It’s really about teaching kids about teamwork, science, technology and business.”

Although the team is based at South Portland High School, students from other municipalities participate, including students from Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough. Usinger is in his seventh year as captain.

Martin said the made-up word “cooperatition” is often used, combining “competition” with “cooperation.”

“Helping each other is a big part of the FIRST culture,” Martin said. “You want them to do well. You may be working with a team that you are competing against.”

Martin said there are multiple facets to the competition; one contest pairs three teams together as an alliance. It can pay off if a team had helped its allies by lending them parts or helping to solve problems in an earlier round, Martin said.

Robert Gierie, who teaches technology trades at Old Orchard Beach High School, said his team suffered from several student emergencies and technical difficulties at the district event in Lewiston on April 4. Team 58, which had been mentoring the Old Orchard Beach team “really stepped up, came in and used our own robots,” Gierie said.

When Old Orchard Beach team students were unable to compete for various reasons, four students from Team 58—senior Senna Bui and sophomores Eythor Antonson, Shane Lovejoy and Gavin Damian-Loring—stood in to operate Old Orchard Beach’s robots as a surrogate team.

The move ultimately helped Team 58 win the Gracious Professionalism Award, earning additional points that helped them to excel to win the New England Championship.

Harel Biggie, an 18-year-old senior and programmer for Team 58, said, “Everyone’s goal is to make sure that everyone is competing at their best … we programmed the Old Orchard Beach machines, rebuilt and replaced some of the electronics, and still got it running.”

Usinger said Team 58 had its own share of problems at the April 4 event.

“It was rocky at first, it was a little jagged,” Usinger said. “We troubleshot in finding the problem. There’s nothing worse than not knowing what the problem is.”

Usinger said when they were setting up to prepare their machine, they realized the arm that rotates to send the ball to the goal would not move correctly. Eventually, they figured out that a speed control unit the team had switched out was set to a default mode of braking instead of coasting, and reprogrammed it accordingly.

Lukas said Team 5286 also had some mechanical problems – a loose connection – that they didn’t realize until mid-competition.

“Our robot was also higher than the other robots and had a different center of gravity, so it couldn’t go so fast,” Lukas said. “It was our first event; we didn’t realize how much of a factor mobility was. We were pushed around a lot.”

Despite their setbacks, Team 5286 was given the Rookie All-Stars Award at the FIRST Robotics District Event held at University of New Hampshire March 6 and 7. Lukas said the judges were impressed with the high level of involvement of the team’s students at each stage of the robot’s development.

The award allows Team 5286 to compete in the New England Championship without a robot and get scored on their design and other factors. The Rookie All-Star winner of New England is then invited to compete in the World Championship, but Lukas said it would take serious fundraising for Team 5286 to attend if they were invited.

In order to fund the Team 58’s activities, Martin said students raise $30,000 from corporate sponsorships and team fundraisers. If the team wins the New England Championship, they may have to raise as much as another $30,000 to fund the entire team’s trip to St. Louis, Martin said.

Seniors Carissa Church, 17, and Tyler Gagne, 18, joined Team 58 to help develop its business strategy. Church said she saw the robots at a school demonstration last year and became interested in getting involved.

Church and Gagne helped coordinate a student-driven process to develop a mission statement, goals and business plan. Church said she hopes her efforts will help the team win the Entrepreneurship Award.

“Instead of selling Girl Scout cookies, they sell LED lights,” Martin said.

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