Monday, May 14, 2012

4001- A Robotic Odyssey Continues

On April 26 to 28, 2012, Quanser-sponsored FIRST Robotics team 4001 from St. Robert high school in Thornhill, Ontario – the Retro Rams – competed in the FIRST championships in St. Louis, MO. They were one of over 400 of the very best FIRST teams in the world and expectedly, the team competed hard and made all of us who worked with them over the season very proud. St. Robert teacher Paul Keenan, one of the faculty advisors for the team, was in St. Louis to witness this milestone event and shares his story. 

I am picking up where Tom Lee left off in his last blog post on the topic of the amazing rookie season of FIRST Robotics team 4001, the St. Robert Retro-Rams. Tom reported on the team winning the Rookie All Star and the championship of the Greater Toronto West Regional, in no small part thanks to the best team in Canada, team 2056 from Stoney Creek, Ontario. In the euphoria of the moment I was handed a pile of paperwork designed to get our robot in its crate to the Edward R. Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri. Small problem… no shipping crate and no money.

Decision Time for the Retro-Rams
Do we go, can we go? Principal Sarna says “Let’s do it” and we swing into action. Monday night teachers, Bob Chirrey and Mike Manning build a crate. Tuesday afternoon FedEx picks up the crate and two days later it is in St. Louis! A couple of phone calls later we have enough money to send a team of 19 kids and some staff to St. Louis on a 15 hour bus ride. 

Rams Rock the “Gateway to the West” 
After choosing some key kids and offering the opportunity to some more hardworking team members and getting some needed visas at the American consulate in Toronto, the team arrived in downtown St. Louis at 1:00 AM,15 hours after leaving Thornhill on Tuesday morning. We had one day to sightsee before the work began later in the day Wednesday. Some headed off to the mall whereas others (me included) went to the St. Louis Science Center. At 4pm Wednesday construction on the pit and testing and inspection of the robot began.

We competed hard on Thursday, Friday and Saturday morning and amassed a winning record on the Archimedes field (one of four field – each had one hundred teams competing!). With a little luck we might have gone 7-2. The drivers made alliances, discussed strategy, made friends, and drove hard. Many times the students were approached on elevators, in food lines and in the pits and recognized. “Oh, you guys are 4001. We saw your game on YouTube. It was the best FIRST match ever!” There was disappointment when our friends from 2056 chose 4334 from Calgary and not us in the playoffs but as I said, “We are here because of 2056 and they owe us nothing. If anything we owe them a debt of gratitude.” Students bounce back as always and were joining the other Canadians in cheering on the alliance of Canadian teams;2056, 1114 and 4334. 

Why We Went  
The nineteen students had a great time and learned a lot along the way. As one team member told another student in my class Monday when asked about the trip, “It was the greatest experience of my life”. The prevalent theme of the competition could be summed up as, “It is great to be a nerd!”. Although to me the kids looked as normal as any teenager it was the adults that caused the double takes from hair and beards dyed red, to grannies dressed as superheroes. I had heard it was life changing but as a jaded old teacher I thought it was hype but when at our parent meeting before we left a mom approached the principal to thank her because she had seen a tremendous positive change in her son since he became involved in the robot team I bought into the hype!

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