Monrobots

Above, the Monrobots at competition last weekend. From left to right: junior Ryan Shears; senior, Henry Pritchard; Lauren Reynolds; coach Jess Stafford; and Andrew Hey. Other team members not pictured are Conrad Bruton, Jenna Velasquez, Keegan Sutton.

The Fabrication Lab (or “Fab Lab”) is William Monroe High School’s newest creation space. Part of the $28 million renovation last year, it houses a laser cutter, 3D printer and other tools for creating machinery or art projects.

The high school robotics team, who call themselves the “Monrobots,” traveled to the state qualifying tournament in Orange on Saturday, Jan. 18. The robot, which they call Trebuchet, measures about 2 feet tall and is made of small machine parts put together by the students.

According to the FIRST Robotics website, “Under strict rules, limited time and resources, teams of students are challenged to raise funds, design a team ‘brand,’ hone teamwork skills, and build and program industrial-size robots to play a difficult field game against like-minded competitors.”

While the middle and elementary school teams who traveled to their state competition in December were part of the FIRST Lego League (using small-scale robots made from plastic Legos and block-coding programs to achieve set tasks on a playing board), the high school team is using real metal and machine shop power tools to create an industrial-sized robot which completes challenges in a gymnasium.

Starting with a standard kit of parts and with additional resources ordered online, the Monrobots were also able to 3D print some elements of their robot.

“One of the wheels broke, so we went ahead and 3D printed a solution,” Coach Jessica Stafford said, showing off the unique piece of technology which WMHS students have access to.

The robot has a smartphone attached to it as its main computer, which receives commands from a second smartphone, which is plugged in to two different controllers for the students’ use.

“They do the coding on a computer, upload it to the phones and the phones talk to each other,” Stafford said. “So one phone is the control and one phone is receiving the signal.”

In competition, the students control Trebuchet via two separate controllers. Depending on how well they programmed their controls ahead of time, the controllers give the robot versatility of movement when team members work together on the field.

“[The students] created the code for the remote control. It’s not like a PlayStation controller, where you just plug it in,” Stafford explained. “Part of the most challenging section of what they’re doing is figuring out the coding to make the controller work with the robot.” While tasks in competition must be accomplished on the fly, the coding work done by the students ahead of time is what allows the controllers to operate effectively.

Henry Pritchard, a senior at WMHS, is in his fourth year working with the robotics team.

“We’ve got a lot of different motors for different functions,” Pritchard said, demonstrating Trebuchet’s functionality. “For example, this motor right here will control the squeezing part—we call that the fingers. We’ve got analogies for body parts, just to make it easier to understand. So it can squeeze, the wrist can rotate, the arm can extend and the shoulder can move, and the entire body can drive around.”

The newer team members and new coach have relied on Pritchard’s expertise in pushing the team forward this year, Stafford said. Ryan Shears, a fellow senior who is participating in robotics for the first time this year, said his two computer science classes also helped him understand the necessary coding challenges.

“We got a late start, so we haven’t had as much practice time as we would have liked,” Stafford said. “I didn’t know I was coaching this until very late. Matt Bush was the coach last year, and he did an awesome job with it, but he actually moved school systems. With all the construction and … all kinds of confusion at the beginning of the year, robotics wasn’t necessarily at the top of the list of priorities. Once everything settled down, we realized we gotta get this going NOW.”

Teams typically begin at the start of a new school year, but the Monrobots only started practicing in November, giving them just under two months to prepare for the qualifying tournament. While they will not be moving on to a state competition this year, Stafford is proud of what they’ve accomplished.

“It’s a lot of critical thinking, a lot of problem solving; you make one plan and then you have to adjust and come at it from a different angle, both literally and figuratively. Nothing ever goes the way you initially plan,” she said.

Stafford hopes to provide some stability to the team, which has gone through several coaches over the years. By building up younger members, the team can build upon previous years’ successes and learning curve year to year. Eventually, the school hopes to be able to host their own robot battle between two student-built bots to determine which robot goes to qualifiers.

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