ARLINGTON — As the Arlington High School Robotics Team counts down to the end of its build season on Feb. 19 and the start of its competition in Seattle on March 27, its members are facing a novel challenge with slightly diminished numbers who boast significantly less experience than the previous year’s team.
“Last year, we had a bunch of seniors who’d been in the program since they were freshmen, and when they graduated we lost the skills they’d built up,” said Caroline Vogl, who first joined the team as a freshman last year, but has since become such a fixture that even a few of her fellow sophomores this year assume she’s a junior. “It’s mostly just sophomores and juniors now, with maybe two seniors. I still have a lot of friends here, but I was friends with all the seniors. It’s a rebuilding year.”
With the team’s numbers declining from more than 30 members last year to barely more than two dozen this year, Vogl acknowledged that time has likewise become scarce, since fewer people still have to perform the same amount of work, and without as many seniors, the sophomores and juniors have had to step up into leadership roles.
These difficulties are compounded by the competitive challenge with which their robot is tasked this year, which features not only the familiar mechanical operation of shooting projectiles — in this case, frisbees — but also the entirely new obstacle of climbing a pyramid of steel bars.
“Our robot gets to fall off a pyramid this year,” said Geff Hederich, a robot programmer who, like Vogl, is a sophomore in his second year with the program. If Hederich seemed chipper, and perhaps even enthusiastic, over the prospect of his team’s robot getting toppled, it might be because he relishes facing new challenges. “I like learning through experience. Beyond just programming, I’ve gone into wood shop this year, and it’s expanded what I’m able to do. I have hand-eye coordination, but I don’t have everything-else coordination, and just getting off the computer for a while helps out with that.”
Junior Connor Tilley joined the team this year to go into programming, but like Hederich, he’s found himself broadened by shouldering additional unexpected responsibilities.
“I’ve had to adapt to what I wasn’t prepared for,” said Tilley, who’s worked as a fabricator of the robot’s structure. “I fell in love with the engineering, though, and I never would have found out how much I could love it if I hadn’t joined this team.”
“How many kids know what they want to do when they graduate?” asked Amy Smith, a team parent who volunteers as a supervisor for the students. “Because these kids do. Robotics gives them an opportunity to do something they’re interested in.”
While the AHS Robotics Team lost the time-tested savvy of last year’s seniors, it’s gained a trio of adults as committed mentors, including not only Amy and her husband Steve Smith — the latter an Interior Communications Electrician with the U.S. Navy — but also Jim Hoskinson, a fellow team parent who works as an engineer for Boeing.
“My downfall is that I try to get too technical too fast,” said Hoskinson, who joked that his own children won’t even show him their math homework for that reason. “So I’ve been trying to show simple ways in which math and science apply to everything we do. It’s great when kids can apply that to hands-on, real-world skills.”
“I’m kind of jealous,” Steve Smith laughed. “They didn’t have programs like this when I was in high school. It not only makes learning fun for them, as they figure out why things work and how to make them work better, but it makes teaching this stuff fun for me. If you do it as your everyday job, you might take it for granted, until you see their eyes light up.”
Even students whose contributions are less technical, such as those of Vogl as the team’s public relations person, are no less enthusiastic.
“I really like doing the community outreach,” said Vogl, who meets with businesses, takes photographs and maintains the website for the Robotics Team. “I’ve made so many friends because of robotics.”