First Robotics clubs teach more than engineering

Atholton High School students stand in the queue area before a First Robotics match at the Xfinity Center Friday.
Atholton High School students stand in the queue area before a First Robotics match at the Xfinity Center Friday. (Blair Ames)

"Coopertition" is a popular phrase at First Robotics competitions.

Formed by combining competition and cooperation, coopertition is a key value stressed to students who participate in First Robotics clubs.


Speak to any Howard County student at a robotics competition and it's one of the first things they will mention.

"In First, there are two things that they want to teach you, gracious professionalism and coopertition, where you will go over to the person that you're fighting against and help them out," said Brandon Smolla, a sophomore at Atholton.


From April 3-4, six Howard County robotics teams traveled to the Xfinity Center at the University of Maryland for the 2015 Chesapeake Regional, featuring nearly 60 teams from the region and a few from New York, North Carolina, Florida and overseas.

Teams from Howard included Atholton, Glenelg, Hammond, Mt. Hebron, River Hill and Wilde Lake.

At stake was a trip to the national competition in St. Louis later this month.

The two-day competition put students' robots to the test as they competed in teams of three before the eight highest scoring teams selected their two alliance teammates for a playoff round. Teams are scored based on how many points their alliances scored during the preliminary rounds of competition.


Atholton and Glenelg were both selected for the playoff round, but neither made it to the semifinal round. Atholton finished just one point away from moving on, earning it the highest place of any Howard County team.

In addition to being selected for the playoff round, Glenelg's squad also earned the Gracious Professionalism award. Similar to the coopertition them, the award recognizes students who produce high quality work, emphasize the values of others and respect their competitors.

This year's competition, "Recycle Rush," challenged students to build robots capable of stacking plastic totes on scoring platforms and then capping those stacks with recycling containers.

Every club has a different story

Robots built by students cost thousands of dollars, paid for by club sponsors and some donations by parents.

The budgets of these programs can run into the tens of thousands of dollars range for transportation costs and food costs for students who spend long nights and much of their weekends working on these robots from January through March.

For example, at Atholton, the robotics club budget this year is around $45,000 with the robot in competition costing $3,200 to build.

Students have six weeks to design the robot, consisting of long hours after school and many weekends spent working for a total of about 300 to 400 hours, according to Bill Bialick, lead mentor for the club.

Walking through the pit area at the competition, an obvious difference between teams is their size.

In Howard County, teams range from five students at Wilde Lake to more than 70 at Atholton.

But don't ask the Wilde Lake team if a smaller team puts them at a disadvantage in the competition.

"Here, with our small size, everyone gets a voice and everybody gets to contribute," said Anand Raghu, a junior at Wilde Lake. "We have a great amount of communication."

Nearly 100 Atholton students showed up at the first robotics club meeting this year, Bialick said.

After the Atholton team was founded in 2007 with seven students, Bialick credits the rise in participation to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) being cool with students.

"Howard County is a very tech savvy county," he said. "STEM has come to the forefront at the national level and this is the local manifestation."

As the saying for First Robotics goes, "It's the only high school sport where everyone can go pro."

Pit scouting

A unique aspect of First Robotics is that it not only pits students against their regional counterparts, but also teams from around the world.

At this past weekend's competition, a team from Israel, United Arab Emirates and an all-girls team from Canada participated.

In the early stages of competition, teams are randomly partnered with other teams. Throughout the day, students move from pit area to pit area — called pit scouting — working with their temporary alliance-mates to come up with a preferred strategy.

"There are people all over the world and all different places coming up with different solutions for the same problem," said Kevin Nolan, a sophomore at Mt. Hebron, while he and two other teammates did some pit scouting in between matches.

Students say they love not only the competition aspect, but the six-week design process and the camaraderie built between teams.

Following the coopertition theme, when Wilde Lake's robot was in need of repairs, about eight teams offered some assistance.

Some members of the Atholton Space Raiders will be displaying their robot from last year's competition at the Howard County Public School System STEM Fair at Long Reach High School on April 11.

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