A real underdog story evokes the optimist in all of us, and now Falls Church has a chance to celebrate one of its own. The George Mason High School’s Robotic team improved upon last year’s 40th-place finish to eighth in 2007, advancing into the semifinals at the FIRST Robotics Regional Championships held Saturday in Annapolis, Md.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is closely associated with NASA and MIT, and the robotics competition is designed to inspire high school students to become engineers by giving them real world experience working with professional engineers to develop a robot.
Mason High School teacher John Ballou oversaw participation by 24 students from the City of Falls Church area this year, ranging from grades seven to 12. This was the group’s fourth year making a robot and entering the competition.
With only six weeks to complete the task of building a robot to enter into the competition (that included over 1300 other high schools), Ballou expressed the excitement of the challenge.
“Every team gets a specific kit, and with the help of adults, the kids build the robot from scratch,” Ballou said. “An X-Box controller was used to help manipulate the robot during the competition, so it was very natural for the kids to control during the games.”
Every year, a different game is created to test different strengths of the robot and overall team strategies. This year, the task of the robot was to pick up large donut flotation devices and hang them on three rows of eight, in the shape of a circle.
Three robots were pitted against another three robots and the teams were forced to match up and create allies.
“The best part for me was watching the other robots get creamed, when going in they thought they could beat us,” Kelly Castel a team member said.
“The energy was phenomenal,” Ballou explained. “From behind a piece of plexi-glass, our robot had to figure out how to maneuver around robots that were heavier and custom built to make us lose. And while avoiding the enemy we still had to lift these donuts eight feet off the ground.”
Not only did the George Mason High School’s Robotic team finish in eighth place and qualify for Nationals for the first time in the team’s history, it also received the Delphi Engineering Award for its “innovative, comprehensive and competitive performance on the field of play.”
“The best part was not so much winning, but realizing how competitive our true nature was,” Rachel Taylor another member of the team said.
“We go to these competitions for fun,” Ballou said. “We get so much excitement from the play and interaction with other teams, and the kids walk away learning so much about new methods and how to be a better engineer. Most people know about us and our robot because we always have one in the [Falls Church] Memorial Day parade. Now we’re going to Nationals. We never imagined we’d make it this far.”
The Mason team will compete in the FIRST Championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta April 12 – 14.