Around F.C.

Robotics Team Builds Strong Legacy of Community Outreach

By Alex Russell

Pictured here is the latest iteration of Meridian High School’s robotics team, with team captain Bobby Miller and drive team coach Alexa Zurcher. (Photo: Alexa Zurcher).

In the world of extracurricular, team-based activities, largely contingent on organized athletics or outdoor activity, robotics presents a unique opportunity for kids to pool their knowledge and skills into creating and operating their very own robot.


The Little City’s own FIRST Robotics Competition Team 1418, “Vae Victis,” has exemplified this dynamic since its founding in 2004 by John Ballou — he is now retired from FCCPS but nonetheless hopes to return as a volunteer. Cricket Moore, with years of experience in civic involvement, joined on as Ballou’s aide-de-camp and fellow team coach in 2005.


Thinking back to the pair’s years leading the team, Moore says that “[John] did the building and planning [and] I did the clerical stuff,” such as the handling of finances and travel itineraries — as competitions often took place outside of the Northern VA area.


From the very beginning, Team 1418 was not on any usual path because, according to Moore, “the original team was made up of the stage crew.” International Baccalaureate (IB) kids and “computer studies kids” would soon fill out the ranks. The team’s artistic “genes” would be made apparent time and again, especially when it came to designing competition-themed t-shirts.


Mentor Don Brobst, who started with the team in 2009, talked about the subjects and methodology inherent in robotics, outlining that they “teach hard skills, like programming, pneumatics (relating to the branch of engineering that utilizes pressurized gas to control physical systems),” but that there is also a simultaneous focus on “soft skills, like project management.”


The long-standing robotics team is only a portion of a larger robotics community, whose competitions and other events are organized and run by For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), a non-profit youth organization founded by Dean Kamen with the goal of supporting and inspiring students whose passions lie in engineering and technology.


In the team’s immediate geographic context, they are part of the larger Maryland, D.C., and Virginia district, but FIRST events and programs extend to all fifty states — this year’s World Championship took place in Texas — and incorporates teams from all over the world.


Brobst stated that throughout the team’s long history, “there have been kids who only wanted to do the safety design, or do the t-shirt design,” making the robotics endeavor into a larger “project” extending beyond science and technology, further underscoring that the group is an “inclusive team with a lot of different skills.” He added that “there’s something for everybody; they don’t all need to be engineers.”


Moore echoed this sentiment when she spoke about the volunteering aspect of making Team 1418 run smoothly. “We need all kinds of volunteers, not just people who know how to build a robot out of nuts and bolts.”


In the early days, volunteering duties would see Moore and “two inarticulate kids named Andrew” standing in the driveway to the weekly farmer’s market, getting donations that way.


“By the end of the three weeks, the boys could look adults in the eye and engage in complete conversations.” Fundraising soon took the form of bake sales and raffles at back-to-school nights. Moore also mentioned the support of Janice Nette, whose sons were once members of the team. Netter was an “on-site mentor, collecting checks from kids and donors, coming to every activity.” At one point, she hand-quilted two bed-sized, robotics-themed quilts — with the high school’s signature colors of red, white, and black — which were then raffled off for about a thousand dollars apiece. Later on, the team would organize several pumpkin patch fundraising events until Covid-19 put a pause on social gatherings.


Throughout the team’s fundraising endeavors, there came a point when Moore realized that “we needed to get the school system involved.”


“The superintendent let [us] have a school bus for the 50th anniversary [alumni reunion] tour of various George Mason High School classes,” allowing Moore and some of the robotics kids, along with a few empty bottled water jugs to hold donations, to explain the function and benefits of participating in robotics to the alumni — and raise money that way. According to Moore, once the money had been counted, Ballou noted that things had gone “better than a bake sale.”


Moore remains grateful for the school system’s support, saying that FCCPS “has been very good to us.” Thanks in part to the funds set aside by the school system “for scientific endeavors…we’ve become a powerhouse of the district.”


Team 1418 has also benefited from “mentors from the industry,” with professionals from companies like BAE Systems, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Leidos spending time with the team, or giving the team grants. Ballou shared that the creators of the coding language Python were also big supporters of the team, long before Python became a widely-used programming tool.


Talking about FIRST’s core ideal of “gracious professionalism,” Moore remembered how the team “won the gracious professionalism award [in competition] several times,” personifying and emphasizing the importance of helping “the person who’s competing against you if they need help.”


Even though the season ended last month, Steve Knight, the current FIRST robotics coach, underscored the importance of continuing outreach in the community.


Part of the outreach work incorporates hosting workshops at Team 1418’s homebase, Meridian High School. Brobst explained that “not all the [district] teams have the same level of mentors, so we started a workshop [with] about ten different training sessions,” back in 2009. Turnout was good, as “about a hundred people” attended that first workshop.


“Over the years, the amount of people and teams who attended went up.” The last in-person workshop was in 2019; due to health considerations, the team would proceed to host virtual ones, with the number of topics pared down. “Hopefully, if all goes well, we’ll have an in-person one [this year].”


Because FRC 1418 is a student-led team, returning members help out by mentoring new additions to the group — and that was “one of our biggest challenges this year…only two” students were able to return to the team; “[almost] everyone else was new,” says Knight. Ballou concurred, saying that “because of Covid, this year’s team is a rookie team.” He hopes that people can “appreciate how hard it is to come into [this].”


Team 1418, Knight adds, is “meeting every week now,” and official “recruitment begins in May.” When the next school year begins, the team will continue “talking about outreach” opportunities, as well as fundraising plans.


Alexa Zurcher, who was the drive team coach last season, has been working with team captain Bobby Miller “to create a presentation…for the school board,” which is set to occur in City Council Chambers on Tuesday, May 10. “[This] will help us…give the staff more information on our team altogether.” Financing will also be discussed.


Around the same time, Zurcher says that the team will “start trying to recruit middle schoolers,” as FIRST robotics competitions only allow “high schoolers, and so gaining as many newcomers as possible for next year will greatly help the team.” She plans on going to “the 8th grade science classrooms at Mary Ellen Henderson in a couple of weeks.”


Speaking more on new additions to the group, Zurcher explained how there is a “pre-season where we…teach some of the newcomers how to program and use different motors. This way, when the build season starts, they will be caught up on how they can help build the robot. This pre-season will…start in a month or so, so we will begin to teach some of the 8th graders then.”


Now is especially a time for reflection. Brobst touched on how “if the robots have to climb, we have…a lot of suggestions from the kids on how to better get the robot to climb…feedback from the kids [regarding] wanting more responsibility” is also received, which in turn demands “more time needed to practice” with, and fine-tune, the robot.


The first Saturday in January is when FIRST unveils the competition theme for that season. “Every year there is a new game,” says Moore, with “three or four tasks.” For example, a team’s robot may need to show its capacity for “throwing something into increasingly higher receptacles,” or “pushing an exercise ball” off a surface. “Climbing steps and hanging from bars at several heights” is among the more difficult tasks and is worth extra points during competition.


For the first fifteen seconds of an event, “the robot is autonomous,” relying on its coded instruction. For the remainder of the match, “the kids take over from behind the glass,” telling the robot what to do with game controllers.


Weeks of planning, organization, coding, and building culminate in a random selection of various teams squaring off in timed events, “three teams against three teams.” But Moore comes back to the idea of gracious professionalism as something that hovers over everything in robotics. “[It’s about] building a robot to make a team, instead of [having] a team make a robot…it’s a character-building program.”


Robotics Team 1418 will be present at this year’s Memorial Day celebration on Monday, May 30, beginning at F.C. City Hall and Community Center Grounds (300 Park Avenue) from 9 a.m. — 5 p.m. To learn more about Falls Church robotics Team 1418, visit 1418.team. They can also be found on Instagram @1418roboticsmhs and on Twitter @Robotics1418.