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From worst to FIRST, robotics team seeks help for trip to world championship

A month after finishing last among dozens of high school teams at a regional competition, the Columbus Robotics members produced a remarkable turnaround. They finished first out of even more teams at a different regional competition to qualify for the world championship.

Now, there is another problem for the Columbus team's 14 members - all from Columbus High this year, although it is open to any Musocgee County School District student in grades 9-12: They need an estimated $18,000 to vie for the FIRST Robotics Competition title along with approximately 600 teams April 22-25 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. FIRST means For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology -- and Aflac and United Technologies have been inspired to recognize these students for their excellence in science and technology by donating $5,000 each.

This was the seventh year Columbus Robotics tried to reach the FIRST world championship. The team was invited to the 2012 event, but that was for its outreach program, not its robotics performance.

After finishing last out of 42 teams at the FIRST Georgia Southern Classic Regional, Feb. 27-March 1 at the Georgia National Fairgrounds in Perry, Ga., Columbus Robotics faced 20 of those teams at the FIRST Peachtree Regional, March 26-28 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. This time, Columbus Robotics finished first out of 66 teams, representing eight states and the Dominican Republic.

Columbus Robotics improved its score by more than 400 percent. The team went 14-1 overall. It won seven of eight matches in the preliminary rounds and all seven matches in the finals.

The difference? It was how Columbus Robotics spent the intervening month. Instead of pulling apart and blaming each other for their poor showing, team members came together and boosted each other to enrich their performance.

"When they lost, it lit a fire under their feet," said Columbus High School physics teacher Luther Richardson, who directs the Columbus Space Program, which comprises Columbus Robotics.

Their building phase took longer than they expected, so they didn't have enough time to practice with their robot, and six of their 14 members were rookies.

"I don't think we were as much of a family until after we bombed at that competition and realized something was going wrong," said Farita Tasnim, a senior.

"It was like a slap in the face," said Megan Throlson, a sophomore.

Team members committed to practicing more and communicating better at their makeshift headquarters, inside the former Marshall Middle School. They use the art room as their workshop and the gym as their practice area. In three weeks, they completed 220 practice rounds. Since the season started 12 weeks ago, the team's 14 members have combined to clock more than 28,000 hours of designing, building and practicing.

Now, Farita said, "Everyone is more comfortable with each other. Having that human love and caring really helped with communication as well as respecting each other and their opinions and ideas. It really helped with improving our robot and strategy."

During the building season, FIRST teams have six weeks to construct a robot within the following limits: 120 pounds, 42 inches wide, 28 inches long and 6-feet-6 inches tall. They are given a kit with the same electronics, computer and 10 motors. The spending limits for the teams are $400 per part and $4,000 total.

This year's competition requires their robot to act like a forklift, stacking storage trunks (called totes) and garbage cans and placing foam noodles inside them. They have 2½ minutes. The first 15 seconds is the autonomous period, when the robot must perform by itself. It can operate by remote control the rest of the time.

Another way Columbus Robotics improved, members said, was in making the team more welcoming to female students the past few years.

Shivani Upadhayay, a senior, dropped out of the team after her freshman year.

"I was so intimidated," she said. "It was male dominated, and I was scared that if I was working on something it would go wrong."

But a friend convinced her to rejoin as a junior and work on the team's outreach program, which conducts activities to promote science, technology, engineering and math education. Then she gained enough confidence to create on her own a pivot part for the robot. She received praise from Richardson and her teammates, Shivani said, "and that got me really interested in doing more design."

Jinny Van Doorn, a senior, went through a similar evolution. When she joined the team as a sophomore, she stuck to the outreach program because she didn't think she would be interested in robotics or engineering.

"After actually working on the mechanical side of things for a while," Jinny said, "I really started to enjoy thinking about the problem, conceptualizing different ways to approach the problem."

No wonder more than half of the team members now are female.

Columbus Robotics alumni have gone on to prestigious colleges and careers. The universities they attended include Ivy League schools, Georgia Tech, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins and University of Chicago. They landed jobs with companies such as TSYS, Google, DuPont, General Motors and the German Aerospace Center.

This year's seniors seem to be on the same path. Farita plans to double-major in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. Shivani will attend Georgia Tech, possibly double-majoring in mechanical engineering and computer science. Jinny has been accepted to Yale, Cornell, Duke and Georgia Tech. She is leaning toward Yale and studying molecular biochemistry and biophysics.

Richardson equated the FIRST robotics experience with workforce development.

"As someone who's been through physics and engineering degrees, you would be lucky to get a job and experience the full cycle where you see an idea turn into a full-fledged tested thing," he said. "That's what this is. They get to see every part of the engineering cycle before even considering what school they're going to."

HOW TO HELP

To help Columbus Robotics pay the estimated $18,000 in expenses for its trip to the FIRST world championship in St. Louis, you can donate online at www.gofundme.com/frc4188 or write a check payable to Columbus High School and note "robotics team" on the memo line.

HOW TO PARTICIPATE

The Columbus Robotics team is part of the Columbus Space Program and directed by Columbus High School physics teacher Luther Richardson. The team is open to all Muscogee County School District high school students. For more information, contact Richardson at 706-888-3124 or astro@mit.edu. This year's participants are all from Columbus High. They are:

Seniors

Farita Tasnim, co-captain

Jinny Van Doorn, co-captain

Shivani Upadhayay

Underclassmen

John Barton

Tiondra Grant

Vineeth Harish

Ashita Patel

Hallie Richardson

Victoria Thornton

Megan Throlson

Tyler Toma

Jared Vale

Jenny Youm

Zhong Zheng

TEAM SPONSORS

Columbus Robotics credits the following organizations for helping to support the team during the regular season: Muscogee County School District, Pratt & Whitney, U.S. Army, Booze Allen Hamilton, Char-Broil, Women in Technology, Lockheed Martin and the Society of Women Engineers.

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