Longview's teen robotics club snagged third place — and a cool nickname — at a regional contest last month in Seattle, all because of their strategies on a basketball court.
A robot scored the baskets.
But it was Bits and Bots club members, christened "long shooters" by an MC, who designed, built, programmed and operated the bot with the record shot.
"The design of their robot allowed them to shoot baskets from as far as 42 feet from the basket," said Bob Koenig, the Industrial Technology teacher at Mark Morris High School who advises the club.
In both the Portland and Seattle regionals sponsored by FIRST, the local team "scored the longest shots of the competition" of the 46 teams that competed in each, Koenig said. (They also took third place in Oregon).
"It was awesome," said Bits and Bots member Avery Herbert, a Mark Morris freshman. "I was the shooter, and the MC would say, 'Oh, it's the long ball shooters from Longview.' "
At the Seattle contest, Castle Rock's beginning robotics group scored big by applying a different strategy, Koenig said. They made points by concentrating on defensive moves. (The CR club, Rocket Robotics won the "Highest Rookie Seed" Award, besting eight other rookie teams.)
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded 21 years ago as an international robotics competition for high school students.
The local team, Bits and Bots, is made up of 32 students from Mark Morris, R.A. Long and Three Rivers Christian high schools. It operates independently of the school district, although the district contributes space for supervised after-school work.
Bits and Bots is a 4-H sanctioned club but gets no funds from the county or the state, said Jennifer Leach, a 4-H leader for WSU Extension and a Longview School Board member.
Because the local 4-H and JC Penney partnership goes way back, Leach said, it kicked into gear with plenty of support. She also praised the community's response.
"The top placing teams at state are truly school based teams," Leach said. In 25 years of 4-H leadership, "I have never seen this significant level of local support and dollars committed."
Here's a look at how the local bots got where they got:
Now in its second year, Bits and Bots members worked with a dozen volunteer adult mentors for six weeks, from 6 to 10 p.m. several days a week and all day on Saturday.
Most of the students put in about 15 hours a week, but some work more than 30 hours. "We don't have a life," joked Eric Dalinger of Mark Morris, "but it's lots of fun."
Koenig said parents brought food on work days, and the New Moon restaurant in the Triangle Mall delivered Chinese takeout on Tuesdays.
J.C. Penney fronted the club $5,000 to register for the competition and receive a basic robot brain and software, along with detailed rules of the game.
They needed extra money to enter two state competitions, including transportation and lodging, so the kids had to raise funds.
Corporate sponsors include Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame, and local businesses and individual donors contributed to the eventual $18,500, a "bare bones budget" for the year, said Nathan Leslie, a junior at MM who was on the mechanical team.
Some investments are not counted in dollar signs, including the volunteer hours of mentors and use of facilities.
"This is the school district's building," said Donovan Roberts, 17, of RAL. "They support us by letting us work here" in a spacious metal and wood shop at Mark Morris, with garage doors that open to a covered outdoor space.
"The more 4-H can support what happens during the school day with our after-school programs, the better it is for kids," Leach said. "Our goals are aligned with the schools — giving meaning to math, meaning to science, meaning to reading."
RESPECT FOR RULES
FIRST provides teams with detailed instructions on timing, dimensions and weight, and what the robot must be able to do during the contest.
"At the end of six weeks we have to bag it up, tape it closed and leave it alone" until the competition, Koenig said. "They check your seal." At the contest, "you get one day to work on it. ... This is so everyone gets the exact same amount of time."
Teams around the world follow the same guidelines: a robot can weigh up to 120 pounds (54 kg), not including the battery and bumpers (padded "fenders" around the base and above the wheels).
The Bits and Bots team used four bathroom scales to keep within their limit; they had to take off a supporting bar to reach the weight limit, Leslie said.
BRAINS AND CREATIVITY
"What set us apart is a catapult design," said R.A. Long sophomore Alex Boyd, one of the drivers and the lead programmer for the bot.
In the Oregon regionals in Portland, Bits and Bots were the only team with a catapult, and they came in third in that state contest. In Seattle, two other teams had the catapult design.
Before they settled on the catapult, they tried five prototypes, Koenig said — pneumatic types, a kicker that operated like a leg, and two spring mechanism, one of which pulled the ball down and then hit it as it came back up.
The catapult was the brainchild of Roberts, working with David Nein, also of RAL, Dalinger of MM and one of the club's mentors, Dan Chase.
The bot's square metal body has an opening in the back of the base where three balls can be picked. Notches move the balls up and feed them onto the catapult — a tinted acrylic holder shaped like a sleigh.
"Acrylic is light, strong and vibrant — it looks nice," said Boyd, one of the drivers.
The ball stays in place until an operator uses remote control to activate a revolving mechanism that shoots the ball up and away. "We use a motor to spin it around, and a release system," Roberts said.
There are four people on the drive team, Boyd explained.
"I control the robot's minutes in the field. Another guy controls auxiliary functions, picking up the three balls, shooting a ball." The last two are a bounder and a coach who focuses on the bigger picture.
The team also pointed out their dandy "mecanum" wheels, which have swiveling rubber foam parts that fit diagonally all around the wheel and allow it to swivel for more flexible movement.
COMPETE AND COOPERATE
FIRST contests winnow finalists in a process that rewards cooperation.
Throughout the rounds, teams are grouped by three and compete against other configurations of three teams. Each team earns all the points scored by their trio. So if Team A wins 30 points, all three clubs will add those 300 points to their total.
In this game, points were scored for baskets, defensive moves, pick-ups of basketballs, and successfully crossing two heavy, teeter-totterlike bridges set up in the middle of the court.
If your robot voluntarily allowed helped another bot to get on the bridge and share the crossing with you, that earned you more points than if your bot crossed alone.
When another team's battery ran out during a match, Bits and Bots loaned out its battery. "We always made sure our battery was charged," said Adam Kelley, a junior who goes to school online.
Support like that is common at robotics contests, Leslie said.
"When somebody was missing parts, somebody else would bring that part to them." There are also unique ways to score. At FIRST contests, the students said, you might not place at state, but you can come away with a Rookie award as Castle Rock did, or a Chairman Award.
The clubs themselves are not exclusive enclaves.
Bits and Bots has jobs to fit different skill levels, Koening said. RAL sophomore Kory Gonzalez is a timer, Kyleen Koenig does the marketing and promotions for the club, and Payton Barker, a freshman at Mark Morris, changed out the red and blue bumpers in 20-minute breaks between matches.
Only the first place winner from regionals goes on to nationals. So that's a goal this team is still shooting for.
In the meantime, they're fixing up their training bot, "Lucy," "to get her running again," said Herbert.
All this work is "good training for the future," said Zach Whitman, a MM frosh who plans to be an engineer.
Another focus this spring will be recruiting new members, Roberts added. "A lot of seniors won't be coming back. We're looking for fresh blood."