Part I With Nolan S., Grade 11 student at Oakville Trafalgar high school First®Robotics team 1334
WT: If you would just give me your name. and what you are participating in?
I’m Nolan, I’m volunteering for First®Canada with the robots at CNE.
WT: Tell me a little bit about how you came to be here and why you are at the CNE.
Nolan S: I came to be at CNE because the teams at my school, 1334 and 1374, run the robots at CNE. They needed volunteers, and I do the media and outreach part (1334). I just like reaching out to people and getting them interested in STEM. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths)
WT: Are you involved in the robotics program at your school? What’s the name of your school, and what grade are you in?
Nolan S: Yes. Oakville Trafalgar Highschool, I’m going to be going into Grade 12 in about a week.
WT: Are different schools sending their robotics teams to this event? Do you build your own robots and enter them into competition? Can you tell me about the process involved here?
Nolan S: Every January we are given a new game that we have six to eight weeks to deliver a bot for. This year it is a mix between robot basketball and climbing. After that, we go to competition, face other schools, and yeah, have a blast.
WT: This is high school students from across the country?
Nolan S: Across the globe.
WT: Around the world? What are some of the teams have you heard of from around the world?
Nolan S: There is one team from a private school in Silicon Valley, called 254. There are the Black Hawks from Michigan, there are a lot of teams in Ontario, and 4907, from St. Thomas.
WT: What does your robot do? How long did it take you to build it? Is there a difference between the robot your team built and other teams’ robots?
Nolan S: That’s a good question. The robot we have can pick up 2 balls, shoot them into the top goal, and then climb to the second level of four rungs.
Although other schools take it entirely differently.
For example, we have a static shooter, so we must stay in one position, launch the ball from a certain spot and it goes in. However, there is a team from Stony Creek which has a rotating turret, and so they manage to track where the hub (basket) is at all times. They can shoot the ball in from anywhere on the field and get a perfect shot. There’s another team, the one I just mentioned from St. Thomas, who instead of climbing the rungs as most teams do, managed to make their robot jump. It jumps 9 feet into the air and latches on to the top bar instead of climbing, just incredible.
WT: How are you placing this year, is it going well?
Nolan S.: We have a lot of connection issues with our robot, so we didn’t do too great at provincials. When our robot did work, it did pretty well. We focus more on training rookies here than on being a powerhouse team.
WT: What does a rookie do? Your teammates talked about the robot as “what the rookies train on”.
Nolan S: Rookies are in their first year of doing robotics. They come in with zero experience. Most of the time, rookies begin in Grade 9.
WT: How many years have you been doing this?
Nolan S: This is my second year. My first year was in Grade 9, which was in the 2020/21 season so that got shut down because of Covid. Last year there wasn’t much happening with the team either because we couldn’t go to events. So, this is my first full year.
WT: When I went to high school, I don’t think there was anything remotely like this. What’s good about being in the program? Why are you in this, what’s it for, and where do you go from here? What would you suggest to other students across the country?
Nolan S: It’s a way to get experience and get interested in all different types of fields. There are a lot of people on the team that wanted to do software engineering or computer science and ended up going into mechatronics, or something more physical than working with software, because they got the experience doing robots, and so they figured out their career path.
It's also a way to meet people. There are a tonne of people I would never have talked to or interacted with if it wasn’t for robots, so it’s a great way to make friends. I recommend everyone at least go to a couple of meetings, even if you don’t fully join the team, you will still get something out of it.
WT: After high school then, do you have your career path mapped out already? Has this helped you with applications for universities? Can you give us a bit of an idea of where you are going to go after all this?
Nolan S: I want to do computer science, I’m not sure where specifically, nothing ironed out yet. I worked on programming the robot in Grade 9, so I want to go into that. I also did media stuff in Grade 9 which helped me get an internship with an NBA sports team, so it’s been directly helpful with that.
WT: You were a communications director for one of the NBA teams? Is that right?
Nolan S: I did social media posts.
WT: That’s related to what I do for a living. What’s it like to do social media, how do people respond? Is there a lot of interest?
Nolan S: Everyone is either (really) supportive or somewhat apathetic, but I think it’s super cool.
WT: Is your team out of the competition now? I noticed there was a fair amount of fixing going on between tournaments.
Nolan S: Right now, we’re hosting the off-season event at the CNE, so we are just trying to fix up for that. Then there is another off-season event, Southwest, which is hosted in Windsor, I believe by 772. So, we go to that. There is a lot to do between the end of the season and the start of next season.
WT: Is it similar to a sports team, once you have your robot, that’s what you are going to use, or can you go with a whole other idea? How does that work?
Nolan S: We can sort of tinker with our robot a bit, change code or maybe add a different (feature) but we would never scrap our robot and start over from the beginning because that would just take too long, and cost too much. We try to just iron everything out at the start of the year.
Part II With Evie B., Grade 12 student at Oakville Trafalgar high school First®Robotics team 1374
WT: Are you working on the same robot as Nolan?
Evie B: Nolan has his robot (team 1334), and we have our robot (1374), so we have separate robots that we will compete, the upcoming.
WT: What’s the difference between your robot and the other robots in this competition?
Evie B: What’s interesting about First® Robotics is they start off the season and they give you a game challenge. They’re going to say, “you have to shoot x number of balls in for x number of points, and you have the climb the monkey bars, and this is going to give you a certain amount of points”, but what they don’t tell you is HOW they want you to do it.
You have full creative reign on how you want to design your robot. You can have a launching pad; you can have a shooter. For example, our team decided to have a conveyer system, so we don’t have to worry about the angles of the trajectory of the shooter.
At the end of the year, we had to come together and look at each other’s designs, see what we did really well and what we can improve going forward. With two separate teams at our school, we have a lot of collaboration and encouragement for growth and design.
WT: How long does the design phase take? How long did it take to build, and how long does it take to get good at doing this?
Evie B: First, there is the kick-off. We get the game challenge, and then they give us this huge game manual. The game manual says, “you can’t go past this line at this point in the game”, there are a bunch of little rules you want to follow. So, before you even consider your design, you want to look at that.
Then in design, you look at the game challenge. Yes, it’s new, but there are some similarities between this and previous games that we can use in our strategies. This year they want us to pick up balls. In the game from 2020 we also picked up balls, but they were a little bit smaller, so the question is how can we modify robots from the previous year to fit this design?
Then we sit down over a weekend and see how we want to approach each section of our robot. So, when we pick up (a ball), that’s one mechanism, we need to drive, that’s another mechanism, we need to shoot, another mechanism, and we need to climb, all these sub-systems in our robot. Then we divide up the tasks. The design takes about a week to have the CAD complete.
Then we enter prototyping, building models of the CAD out of wood, or scrap pieces. We leave the metal on the final product that you see until the end because during our prototyping we know (there will be modifications). We need to re-measure and re-CAD, we have a feedback loop system for testing and adjusting, this takes about two weeks to do.
The final CAD is the version we know is going to work. Now we build it out, we are welding, we are screwing things together, doing advanced machining, this takes a bit longer to do. As this is happening, we tell the programming team how everything needs to work: we need to pick up balls, there will be two motors here, so they can start working on programming while we finish the build. We have six to eight weeks; within that time frame, we must have everything finished. Then we enter the competition.
WT: How many people are involved in this process from your school? By the time you get the robot on the ground, doing its thing at the CNE?
Nolan S: On my team, 1334, I think we have about 30 people.
Evie B: On (1374), the entire team size is about 30 people. I would say half to three-quarters of that actually does robot build. First® Robotics has a media presence, there is sponsorship, and there are essays we can submit for awards, so there are non-technical team members that focus on our presence in the media.
WT: This is sounding like a tech start-up. Is this how you see it too, where the techs, media people and designers come together? Is this quite different than the usual high school experience?
Evie B: I would say it is a start-up. We see the challenge in January and have to figure out how to throw everything together to make it the best we can. Less like a start-up, we still have this media presence, our values, and who this team is over the years, which stays constant. Over six weeks we see each other every day, and we eat meals together. You will see us helping each other with homework, so you really get this community sense as well.
WT: If you could say one thing to someone coming into Grade 9 about your experience, what would that be?
Nolan S: My experience in Grade 9 was a lot of learning and working with the older students. I did something called Robo-link, a shadowing program so I really got to be involved with programming the robot, even though I didn’t know too much about it, so, it was something just amazing to be a part of. I am hoping to go to university for computer science, so it’s definitely affected my career path. Everyone in Grade 9 can learn.
Evie B: In Grade 9, I was actually in a different school. I reached out to our teacher (Oakville Trafalgar) and asked if I could join, and they made an exception for me. It was so intimidating going in, but the older students took me under their wing and made me feel so much at home. Fast forward to now, I am attending this school. I would say to the Grade 9 students, let the older students take you under their wing, let them mentor you, they have so much to offer. Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone, the payback is so rewarding.
WT: I have more hope today for the future because of you folks. We encourage everybody in environmental science to get into whatever they can really groove with. Thanks for this.