“Alright guys, let’s call it a night.”
It’s 10 p.m. on a Tuesday, and I’m still at school. Exhausted and famished, the few students who remain slowly begin to clean the mess in the Design Lab. Most of them won’t get home until past 10:30 p.m., and all of them won’t be able to sleep until they have completed their homework.
This is a common scene for students on the robotics team. But with all the work and stress that robotics brings, the experience that it provides is invaluable.
I joined the robotics team in my freshman year. Although I had always been interested in building and problem solving, I had never participated in the Middle School Robotics program.
Almost immediately I understood the seriousness of the High School robotics team. This was a no-nonsense world that I had never experienced before, but one that I instantly fell in love with. From the first day we went straight to work, brainstorming ideas, strategies and delegating duties. It was clear to me that half measures were not accepted: If you did a job, you did it right.
The first lesson I learned came from spending countless late nights in the Design Lab: There’s no escaping hard work. In any serious endeavor, if you expect good results, there is no substitute for devoting serious time to work on it. This goes for schoolwork, but perhaps even more so in real world applications. Students may cut corners to get good grades in school, but unfortunately, there is no such thing as SparkNotes in the real world.
Another lesson that I learned is how essential teamwork and communication are when working within a group. The robotics team is divided into three separate teams: Building, electronics and programming. Part of the difficulty in building a functioning robot comes from integration: Everything has to work together. Building the robot requires constant communication and organized cooperation. I think this is true for most real world applications. When working with a team, everyone has to be on the same page with the same goal, and be equally informed. It’s harder to get things done efficiently if people work on their own.
After the first day, 13 March, of tournament matches in New York City, our team was quite demoralized. After a disappointing 6 matches riddled with malfunctions in our robot, our team placed 28th out of 66 teams. With all the hard work we had put in, it was demotivating to see our team ranked so low. Nevertheless, we kept our spirits up and the next day we went straight back to work, fine-tuned the robot and improved our results drastically. By the end of the day we were ranked in eighth place. This put us in the position to become 1 of 8 alliance captains – meaning we would now have to pick two other teams to join us in the quarter finals. This reversal of fortune taught me another lesson: Don’t despair at the first sight of failure.
After our successes, when the fourth ranked team asked to become partners with us, you might presume we said yes. But we didn’t. An integral part of every robotics team is the scouting group. These people look at every single team in the competition and rate them so that we know exactly what they are capable of and what they are good at. By examining our records, we saw that the 4th place team was only in that position because they had been with great teams in almost all of their initial matches. So we respectfully declined their offer and chose to partner with a team that was in 18th place.
Through our research, we saw that despite being out of the top 10, this team had a proficient robot whose capabilities would pair nicely with ours. They had unfortunately suffered from simple malfunctioning errors that had lowered their score. Our research paid off, as they quickly turned out to be one of the best teams in the competition. This was another important lesson: The best choice is not always the most obvious one.
In the end, to our euphoria, our team won the NYC regional. But just as important as the joy of success were the important lessons that I learned along the way. Based on my experience, I would encourage everyone to engage in some sort of after school activity. You will often learn skills that are invaluable in life – skills not always taught in the classroom, but just as important.