A small but dedicated group of Watertown High School students designed, programmed, and piloted a robot that competed and fared well against competition from around Eastern Massachusetts. And the WHS Robotics Team enjoyed one of its most successful years in 2022.
The team reached the final of the knockout stage of the Greater Boston Event in late March. This is the farthest the team has ever advanced in its history. At the same competition Watertown also won the Team Spirit Award.
Each year, the game that the robots entered into the FIRST Robotics competition play changes. Some parts are common, such as having to pick up balls and get them into a goal. This year there were some twists, said Willow Thompson, a senior on the WHS Robotics team.
“The main difference is the balls are giant tennis balls,” Thompson said. “There are two goals, high and low, and at the end there are bars to climb at different levels.”
Junior Bianca Skraly added: “They are like monkey bars.”
At each competition there are qualifying rounds where teams accumulate points. After qualifying is over, the eight teams with the most points become alliance captains, said Thompson, and those teams pick other robots to be on their team.
Watertown chose a specialty that might appeal to the alliance captains.
“We don’t have as many resources as some other teams. What other teams look for is defense,” Thompson said.
Along with the strategy for the competition, the team from Watertown also had a strategy for getting their name out there. The WHS Robotics team is also known as Team 2423 and The KwarQs.
“We bought a bunch of little ducks and put our number on them and passed them out to other teams during the event,” Skraly said.
The rubber duckies proved popular.
“It got to the point where you could hear ducks quacking (constantly),” Thompson said.
They also had a student dressed up as a giant yellow duck costume at the competition, Skraly said.
The team hoped to move on to the New England District Competition at the Big E in West Springfield on April 13-16. The top 80 teams from the six New England states qualify, but Watertown didn’t quite make it, said head coach Travis Norris.
“Unfortunately we just missed the cutoff,” Norris said. “The students were disappointed but are looking forward to some off-season projects to learn new skills without the pressure of the competition season.”
On a Tuesday night in April, Thompson and Skraly added new parts to the robot, and fixed those damaged in competition in the mechanical area. Some parts can be purchased and others are designed by the team and made with a 3-D printer, Skraly said.
The team began in 2008, and the numbers of students participating has ebbed and flowed over the years. This year is a pretty small group, and it skews young.
“A lot of the team members graduated over the COVID period,” Skraly said. “We are mostly freshmen, and honestly it is going really well.”
Thompson added that only five non-freshmen show up regularly this year.
A couple of the ninth-graders on the WHS Robotics team worked on their computers writing the code that drives the robot.
During the first few minutes of the competition, the robots operate in automated mode, said Anna Hermans, a ninth grader. Looking at the laptop screen, Hermans laid out the path that the robot would follow.
To test out whether it works, the students and their mentors rolled out a play surface made up of large floor mats duck taped together. The robot first did a curve, stopped briefly, then sped along a straight line, and stopped right at the edge (and just before hitting chairs pushed to the side of the computer lab). The robot turned and drove forward, finally stopping in the middle of the mats.
Hermans is part of the Programming group. She joined the robotics team when she got to the high school.
“It’s a new thing (to me). We didn’t have a robotics club at the middle school,” Hermans said. “I was looking for something new and exciting, and, I mean, it’s robots!”
While robotics appealed to her, Hermans did not have any programming experience, but she picked it up with the help of mentors who work with the team.
Adrian Schick, a ninth grader, also came in with no programming experience. He decided to work with the Programming group because he said “I didn’t think hardware was for me.”
The two groups have to work together, though they spend a lot of their time in different rooms.
“There needs to be a lot of good communication and coordination between the two,” Schick said.
Many times, the Mechanical group works on the robot and asks the programmers to come up with code to make it carry out a particular action, such as scooping up the ball or shooting it. Occasionally, the programers ask the Mechanical group to come up with a piece to put on the robot to carry out what the programing is telling the robot to do.
There is a lot of trial and error in programming, Schick said, and they are always looking to make the process run better.
Many of the students involved in the Robotics Team go on to study engineering in college. One such student is Juliana Lavery, who graduated from WHS in 2020 and is now a sophomore at Wentworth Institute of Technology.
Lavery said she joined the robotics team, and then took engineering courses at WHS.
“Once I was on the team I got more interested in engineering,” she said.
Now Lavery is a mentor for the Mechanical group.
“I was glad I came back to see the team become finalists at Boston,” Lavery said.