Sunday, March 31, 2013

Who are the BulahBots?

Almost two years ago, I blogged about a book called The New Cool, which tells the inspiring (on a number of levels) story of a FIRST Robotics team and their journey. Recently I have been following another FIRST Robotics team with particular interest, FIRST Team 3753 - BulahBots. Led by Shawn Liner, this team from Parkview Baptist School in Baton Rouge recently landed themselves on the FIRST map by earning a trip to the FIRST Robotics Championship (as in National Championship) in St. Louis. I figured this would be the perfect time to share their story with you and provide you with some food for thought over the next few weeks. Before we get into all the takeaways from such a program, let's get to know FIRST Team 3753 a little better. Shawn graciously agreed to indulge my barrage of questions, and the first part of my interview with him appears below. I will post updates and additional portions of the interview periodically so check back frequently.

You can follow FIRST Team 3753 on their website or on their Facebook page.

Now, I give you the BulahBots...

Nathan: What is FIRST Robotics?
Shawn: Touted as the “Varsity Sport For The Mind”, FIRST Robotics is an organization that uses robots to create an athletic atmosphere for a mental competition. FIRST actually runs from young middle school through high school. For younger students there are Lego-based robotics competitions, where the robot is small enough to fit on a table. For high school students, the robots can weigh in at 135 pounds and stand 6 feet tall. Teams are encouraged to simulate an engineering firm with different components, such as image teams, public relations, community outreach, project management, budget control, and of course product (the robot).

Nathan: What inspired you to create a FIRST Robotics team at your school?
Shawn: I teach at a private school where many of my students have not really had a “shop” experience. However, I’m teaching tomorrow’s physicists, chemists, doctors and engineers. I often have used tools as an example in class and students wouldn't really have a grasp of those tools.  I also felt that students were going into the engineering field (or choosing not to) out of an ignorance of engineering actually is and what engineers actually do. As a result I created an introduction to engineering class that is intended to be a survey course of engineering. We talk about what each discipline does, we do some drafting, we do some programming, we build some Lego robots, and we launch some water rockets, all the while learning how they work. I've thought of doing all of these things in physics class, but I run out of time before I get to really experiment with some of these different activities. This course became my sandbox where I could play a little without compromising the curriculum of an AP Physics class.Then, at an NSTA conference, I took a field trip to see FIRST robotics. I saw kids doing so many of the things that I was trying to get across to them in engineering class. However, they were showing up after school to do it and then they were in the stands cheering each other on for it. So I had to dig further. The problem is that robotics is expensive. Therefore, it took me a while to get the program up and running.

Nathan: How did you recruit kids to participate? Was there a "sales pitch?"
Shawn: I handpicked ten kids and recruited them. “Hey, come watch this video, you want to do this?”  Six of them bit and we started a team. The next fall we had a “club fair” at school where we got to show off our club and our robot. We drove the robot around and I had twice that many kids interested in no time at all. Now I've got twenty kids and don’t really know what to do with them all. After presenting our regional trophy to the school at chapel, I've already had several new inquiries this semester.

Nathan: How did you come up with Bulah Bots?
Shawn: I was determined to have a school team. I wanted to see students pour the kind of energy usually reserved for football and basketball into engineering. So I dug around for something related to our mascot. Unfortunately, “eagles” is a very common mascot and we wanted to compete nation-wide. Names like eaglebots, eagle robotics, etc, were all taken. We tried Raptor Robotics. It was nice, but didn't have the ring to it that we wanted. My image team sat and brainstormed ideas. I told them to ignore the school connection at first and just think of stuff. "Think like an engineering/athletic company that wanted a marketable, copyrightable, name, image logo etc." After the initial brainstorm they presented ideas.  They had some good ideas, but I was bothered by straying away from our school completely. (By the way, most school team names, colors, mascots, etc, have little or nothing to do with their school). I asked for another brainstorm session and they hit on BulahBots. “Bulah” is a chant/drum cadence that our school borrowed from Yale.  So we had something there, and no graduate of our school asks us where the name comes from. It’s like an inside story that automatically endears us to our alumni.  We’ve chosen an official spelling and font, created a website, chosen official team colors, and created “Bulah” our mascot, a little robot in 3D program that we can pose for iconic recognition on t-shirts, buttons, etc.

Nathan: What does your team's robot do?
Shawn: The game changes every year. This year our robot receives Frisbees on one end of the field, drives (fast) to the other end of the field and shoots them into a goal that is roughly nine feet off the ground. We are also equipped to hang from a horizontal pole that is thirty inches off the ground; this is a bonus round of the game. We had to make many tough choices in designing our bot, giving up on some things in order to do what we do well.

Nathan: How did your team come up with the design to accomplish that task?
Shawn: Mostly brainstorm and mockup. We spent several hours trading the marker in front of my classroom's dry erase board. We used lumber to mock up our ideas and made sure they worked before we built the final part. An intern from LSU also was able to CAD up some of our ideas so that we were sure things would fit.  After that, it was tweaking and more tweaking.

Nathan: Did it work the first time your team attempted the task?
Shawn: Well, yes, mostly. We did mock them up and CAD them up before we really built. It shot inconsistently at first and we found it was better to allow the wheel to compress instead of the Frisbee. We did spend over a week (I’d guess twenty to thirty hours) practicing the driving, loading, and climbing before competition. As part of the process we also chose our drivers, and feeders during that time.

Intrigued yet? Stay tuned for more about the Bulah Bots and what this experience teaches kids beyond just how to build a robot and toss Frisbees.

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