Blast off: Middle school robotics team succeeds at annual competition

The Hillsborough High School gymnasium was filled with music and chatter as teams made final adjustments to their robots during the 12th FIRST LEGO League Robotics competition on Nov. 17.

Team members of the Hillsborough Middle School robotics team, HMS Robotics, gathered at one of the competition stations —an elevated wooden structure with a table top depicting a galaxy, the earth and the moon —visibly nervous for their first match.

“You guys are going to do great, I’m so proud of you,” said coach and Hillsborough Middle School Literacy teacher Rebecca McManus.

FIRST, which means For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, was created by Dean Kamen and Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, owner of the LEGO Group, in 1998 with the goal of inspiring teams to conduct research, experiment and build their own robots, while “gaining confidence in their abilities to positively use technology,” according to the website.

Currently, FIRST LEGO League has over 230,000 participants in 98 countries.

Deputy Mayor Doug Tomson said, “I’m a proud graduate of Hillsborough High School. Many years ago when the robotics club first started, it was much smaller and to see this event grow to what it is today is a testament not only to the children, not only to the parents who come to the event and support it, but also to all the teachers and great volunteers that make this a great event here in Hillsborough.”

The competitions have a different theme every year and are judged in three categories: the robot design, the research project and how the team demonstrates core values —discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork and fun.

The theme of this year’s BoroBlast competition, Into Orbit, challenged the teams to analyze a problem pertaining to long-term space travel and suggest solutions.

“We did a lot of research, it’s amazing how much they know about long-term space travel and the dangers and the pitfalls,” McManus said in an interview prior to the competition. “The International Space Station vents off hydrogen gas, and we were thinking, ‘Well, how can we use that gas instead?’ What they’re proposing is a way to take that vented gas, collect it and make methane [fuel].”

In the robotics portion of the competition, the robots must complete space “missions” such as Crater Crossing, Escape Velocity, Meteoroid Deflection and Lander Touchdown to earn points throughout the match; each team competes three times, facing off against different teams.

Parents, grandparents, friends and siblings gathered around the four competition stations on opposite sides of the gymnasium, phones in the air as the referees called out any completed missions or points scored. Team members cheered on their peers from the sidelines. An alarm blared as the timer ran out.

At the end of the three rounds, HMS Robotics finished with 147 points, earning them first place in Robot Design and Robot Performance. The team will move on to compete in the state tournament, taking place on Dec. 8 and 9 at Mount Olive High School in Flanders.

The HMS Robotics teams is made up of 10 eighth graders and a group of mentors, including Hillsborough High School senior and member of the RoboRaiders Team 75 Nirmal Sekher, who received the Young Mentor Award.

“This is awesome, this is exactly what I expected and exactly what I wanted for them,” McManus said as her team celebrated their wins. “[Sekher] was on my team six years ago and he’s been a mentor ever since, but he’s a senior this year and he’s moving on, so it was a good time to honor him.”

McManus has been coaching HMS Robotics, whose members rotate every year, for six years and, since mid-September, has spent up to eight hours a week with her team preparing for the competition.

The team’s performance was an example of cooperation, or “working together with your rival team and respecting them,” team member Heny Shah said.

To prepare for this year’s competition, the team also spoke via video chat with NASA’s Advanced Solar Electric Propulsion (ASEP) Specialist Steve Culivan and Hannah McCallum, a propulsion test engineer at Virgin Orbit, which provides launch solutions for small satellites.

“There were about 10 other teams in the conversation [with Culivan] for about an hour,” McManus said. “We were able to pose our questions to him, and it was fun to have the kids listen to the other questions [and say], ‘We know the answer to that question.’”

HMS Robotics member Diya Nathan said she’s always been interested in engineering, but the core values, such as teamwork and communication skills, will always be there after the competitions are over.

McManus agreed, saying that FIRST LEGO League Robotics can change the lives of those involved.

“Across the board, kids who participate in FIRST LEGO League Robotics are different children when they come out at the end. They’re more engaged, confident, they know how to work better as a team and treat people in a way you don’t necessarily see kids treat each other,” she said.

During the competition, members of HMS Robotics could be seen cheering on and encouraging other teams while waiting for their round to begin.

“They are constantly being challenged to come to an understanding that if we’re going to move forward in this world, we need to do it together,” McManus said. “It’s not about who shines, it’s about who can work together to make everyone shine.”