2018-06-08 / Front Page

Robotics team gears up for big event

Teams from across New England scheduled to compete at SPHS
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Members and mentors of the South Portland High School Riot Crew Robotics team with about one-fourth of the trophies and awards they have won since the club was founded in 1996. Pictured are, from left, Coach Sean Manning, team members senior Wendy Manning, junior Ben Gaudreau, eighth grader Vinnie Martinez, sophomore James Wickham, and freshman Owen Vanover, with mentor Steve Martin. (Duke Harrington photo) Members and mentors of the South Portland High School Riot Crew Robotics team with about one-fourth of the trophies and awards they have won since the club was founded in 1996. Pictured are, from left, Coach Sean Manning, team members senior Wendy Manning, junior Ben Gaudreau, eighth grader Vinnie Martinez, sophomore James Wickham, and freshman Owen Vanover, with mentor Steve Martin. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Fresh off their recent trip to the world championship tournament in Detroit this past April, the South Portland High School robotics team, The Riot Crew, is gearing up to host their peers from across New England in a regional exhibition of mechanical aptitude, programming skill and teamwork.

There’s one thing, however, graduating senior Wendy Manning wants you to know. Well, actually . . . two things.

The first is that Riot Crew members dedicated countless hours to their craft. During the build season, which lasts from September to January, it is not uncommon for the 15 members of the South Portland team to log three hours after school each day, and sometimes as much as 12 to 16 hours on Saturdays, planning, building and testing their robots.

The second thing?

“This isn’t ‘BattleBots,’” Manning says with a laugh. “Oh, my God, if somebody took a Skilsaw to our robot, after all the hours we put in, it would break my heart.”

What it is, if not “BattleBots,” is FIRST Robotics — from the acronym “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” The series was founded in 1989 by New Hampshire-based inventor Dean Kamen. Perhaps best known for the Segway scooter, Kamen has said his idea was to get students out of the classroom and into the workshop, where they might find practical applications for their studies.

“Kids, once they see a reason to learn something, they get passionate about it,” he said in June 2013, when he attended a kick-off event for the new Robotics Institute of Maine, at the South Portland campus of Fairchild Semiconductor.

“These companies desperately need the next generation,” Kamen said. “And the schools, they desperately need kids to show up realizing science is not just theoretical nonsense.”

South Portland has fielded a FIRST robotics team since 1996. Manning’s father Sean – an engineer at ON Semiconductor – has served as coach for the past six years. He first got involved as a mentor in 2007 when his twin sons, now grown, became interested in the program. Based on their experience, he can attest to the practicality of Kamen’s vision.

“When my boys joined the program, they didn’t know a flat-head screwdriver from a Phillips, and by the end of it they were showing me tricks I didn’t know. So, that’s one reason I’ve stuck with it. I seem to always be learning as much as these kids are. So, I don’t plan on going anywhere for a while.”

One of the team’s lead mentors has a similar story. Steve Martin is an engineer who retired in 2015 from Fairchild Semiconductor. He got involved in South Portland’s robotics program when his daughter joined the team during its inaugural year in 1996, and has stuck around ever since.

In all that time, despite qualifying for the world championships every three to four years, on average, the Riot Crew still struggles for recognition. That’s due in part to the fact that so much of student time is spent in the lab and partly because the Riot Crew, unlike almost all athletic teams, and even most extracurricular activities, never really has a home game. The team is mostly on the road at regional meets. The team did well this past season, even landing an excellence in engineering award at one event in Massachusetts, but it’s hard to translate that into recognition, despite boasting a trophy case just outside the learning commons at the high school, which holds onequarter of the awards the team has won over the years.

In fact, given the $30,000 cost to run the team each year – robot parts are not cheap and travel to national events is a regular expense – and one third of the cost is covered by the school department, it often seems the robotics team is most visible in the community for its more-or-less continual fundraising efforts.

“We often think of ourselves as a fundraising team that happens to build robots,” Manning jokes.

That’s where the upcoming Summer Heat show comes in. On July 14, as it has each summer for the past several years, the Riot Crew will hold an exhibition of its skills on home turf, hosting as many as 24 teams from across New England in Beal Gymnasium.

To help keep expenses down for its guests, all participating teams will camp out on the gym floor the night before the daylong event. The show itself will feature a typical robotics event, giving locals a flavor of what they miss during the regular season, when the Riot Crew is on the road.

“To see the kids in action, with their robots and a version of the game they played throughout the season, it’s really cool,” said Melissa Martinez, a parent who helps the team with travel, meals and logistics.

“It’s very exciting and competitive, but it’s a whole new world for parents like myself who are used to watching football, baseball and basketball,” Martinez said.

Her son, Vinnie Martinez, who joined the Riot Crew this year as an eighth-grader, said Summer Heat is not only a good chance for the team to strut its stuff for the home crowd, it’s also the primary recruiting poster for a team that does not get a lot of local exposure to potential members. At least it worked for him.

“This was the main thing that really inspired me to join the robotics team,” he said. “It made me realize this really is its own kind of sport. When I went to my first Summer Heat just as a spectator, and I first saw the robots, my eyes got just, super big. Seeing all these hand-crafted robots moving all around the field super-fast to complete their objectives, my mind was just blown.”

“Just like Wendy said, it’s not ‘BattleBots,’ it’s also not a science fair, either,” Manning said. “It’s a very demanding activity.”

“And the cool thing is realizing these kids actually built something from nothing to put on the field to do this,” Melissa Martinez said. “It’s not just picking up a ball and shooting hoops. To see what these kids do, it’s mind-blowing. From someone who knew nothing about it, I’ve got totally into it and my wish and hope is that in the future it grows and that people here and across Maine see that, because these kids put in a lot more hours than just practicing football or baseball.”

Also unlike stick-and-ball sports, each robotics season starts with several days of learning the rules. Then there is the frenzy of trying to actually build something from scratch that will best meet the game objectives.

“During the build time, in the first few days, it’s just chaos, with all of us having different ideas and trying to figure things out,” said sophomore James Wickham.

Each year includes a new scenario, with new objectives. This year, the concept, called “Power Up,” was that the robots and their makers were trapped in a video game. To escape, the students had to pilot their robots to manipulate “power cubes” to activate switches and scales, scoring points.

One thing Manning is not afraid to do is let the students fail. After all, robotics is very much an aspect of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) classes at the high school. And like those project-based learning disciplines, the idea is that students learn by doing. Sometimes that means failing, backing up and figuring out what went wrong.

Once the tournament portion of the season begin, individual matches last 2.5 minutes, but making things interesting, the robot spends the first 15 seconds running completely autonomously from its programming, without human operation. Also, the robots face off against each other in alliances of three, forcing teams to work together to meet the course objectives while also preventing opponent robots from scoring, or stealing points.

“That can be a challenge, because sometimes people (on another team) end up not doing what they said they were going to so,” Manning said. “So, you never know what is going to happen. At the championships we had some rounds where we were certain we were going to win, and nothing worked out, and other we were sure we were going to lose that we did well in. We never had a disaster, really, but nothing ever worked out as expected. It almost never does.”

In Detroit, the Riot Crew made it as far as the quarter-finals, but did at least have the satisfaction of being picked by higher seeded teams to advance, chosen based on an obvious skill set that was belayed by their point total on the field. And, even without lasting to the later rounds, the experience was worthwhile, team members said, if only for the chance to meet peers from across the nation and around the world.

Some Riot Crew members say participation in the team is sparked in them an interest in pursuing science-based careers, others that it merely reinforced that interest, while still others say it has been a challenging and rewarding experience, even if their ultimate life goals lead elsewhere. Some say their time in robotics helps to reinforce their class work, others that the practical application helps them more easily grasp the more theoretical concepts once back in class.

In the end, as with any team sport, the real attraction is the camaraderie of a shared experience, while working together to achieve a common objective.

“With school and scouting, and other things I’m involved in, really, there’s a lot to do,” said junior Ben Gaudreau. “But in robotics I’ve found, while it’s a lot of work, it’s fun and the people here are really supporting and friendly, which is why I enjoy coming here, because if I didn’t like the experience so much, I wouldn’t bother.”

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