Students rock robotics world championship with volunteers' help

Mentoring relationships go back many years

By David Moore | July 5, 2022

Robotic Mentors Opt
The Los Alamos FIRST Team 4153 Project Y robotics team at the World Championships in Houston.

The Los Alamos FIRST Team 4153 Project Y robotics team participated in the 2022 FIRST Robotics World Championship in April 2022, with their four-team alliance finishing fourth in the world.

The team of high school students traveled to Houston to compete against 453 other teams that qualified from almost 6,000 active teams in 51 countries.

Laboratory volunteers Andy Erickson, Pierre-Yves Le Bas and Jim Ten Cate have been working with the team for nine to 10 years, Steve Sintay for about five, and Lucho Ionkov for more than two years.

"Our approach is that we use robots to 'build' students rather than students to 'build' robots," says Erickson. "We aim to give direction and guidance, but let the students lead and learn from hands-on experience. This provides many growth opportunities and outlets for them to be part of a team and participate in science and technology."

The volunteers put in up to 15 hours per week during competition season (January through April) and two to three hours a week in off-season, also attending the regional and district contests that lead to the world competition.

"Seeing the students grow and progress from initial design stages through winning competitions is a great measure of success for the program and hugely rewarding for the mentors, students and parents," says Le Bas.

Designed for particular challenges

Each team designs and builds its robot to accomplish a set of skills specified by the FIRST (For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organization.

This year's challenge included developing a robot to rapidly collect basketball-sized balls and shoot them into a basket — a portion of the time autonomously — and then lift its approximately 125-pound frame up three ascending parallel bars to a height of nearly eight feet, all within a limited time frame and while playing intensively head-to-head with other robots in a confined arena.

Building a pipeline

The Los Alamos Team 4153 Project Y competed in the high-school age competition where teams work on robots that weigh more than 100 pounds, but the FIRST organization offers programs for elementary and middle-school students to work on smaller robots.

Another Lab volunteer, Brad Cooke and his wife, have been mentoring middle-school teams in Los Alamos for 10 years, working with others to help create a pipeline for budding engineers to learn the basics of robotics and teambuilding, and move on to the more advanced competitions as they get older.  Numerous other volunteers help with other robotics programs within the community.

"As the only New Mexican team which qualified for the world championships, we are proud to have represented our state so well," says FIRST Team 4153 member Evan Long. "The competition not only invites students to push the envelope of STEM, but it also fosters teamwork among students and goodwill with others from diverse cultures."