Robotics team kicks off new season

(From left) OMS robotics mentor Dennis Hurst and student Gavin Shafer make some adjustments with assistance from OHS robotics students Keira Houston and Jason Grabowski. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio.
(From left) OMS robotics mentor Dennis Hurst and student Gavin Shafer make some adjustments with assistance from OHS robotics students Keira Houston and Jason Grabowski. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio.

After travelling to the FIRST World Championships last year to flex their scientific muscles through robotics, Oxford High School’s TORC 2137 robotics team kicked off a new season on Jan. 5 with another world championships appearance this spring on their minds.

This semester, the theme for competitions is deep space. With that theme in mind, the students will spend the next six weeks crafting a robot that will be able to take dodgeball-sized balls across the playing field and attach hatches to itself that will keep the balls from falling out.

Because the team did so well last year, garnering a number of awards and coming in 24th out of 68 teams in its division at the world championships at Cobo Center in Detroit, they have a guaranteed spot at the world competition this year with all expenses paid by NASA. But, along the way, their goal remains to excel at the local and state levels.

“States isn’t guaranteed, we have to earn that through our scoring and points that we earn through other competition items at the district competitions,” Ian Houston, one of TORC’s mentors, said.

Houston said the process of designing, programming and building the robot is a game-changing experience for the students. It’s collaborative nature and focus on the ever-growing fields in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mechanics) gives the teens skills they’ll use for life all while having a good time.

“I can’t say enough about how this program gives students an experience like nothing they’ve ever seen,” Houston, who also has five children involved in the program across the grade levels, said. “It’s not only about STEM, but it’s about leadership and values (as well as) core concepts like gracious professionalism and teamwork.”

Aside from the STEM skills, the program lends itself to a number of interests. One of the students joining the team for the first time this year, Oxford Schools Early College freshman Zach Lundy will work on the team’s media team. Instead of working with the robot, he’ll be creating content that will promote and benefit TORC.

“I think robots are cool, but I don’t see it as a thing I want to go into when I get older,” Zach said. “But the media side really stood out to me… I (will) mainly take pictures and create things such as posters and other informational things that can help promote the team.”

In the media role, students still get that collaborative experience, and Zach is looking forward to that opportunity as he and the other media students aim to promote the program.

“I think (this) will help with my ability to just create things from scratch and to also look back at previous years and just build on that to make it better than before,” he said.

His older brother on the other hand, OSEC sophomore Alex Lundy, has worked with the mechanics end for the last three years. He’s looking forward to building and testing this year’s robot, for which he and his teammates are already starting to toss around ideas.

“I like the design (process) and the making of the parts because those two really go hand in hand,” Alex said. “It’s just really fun to come up with our own things and see how they turn out once (we) make them.”

Even though the team already has one of the coveted world championship spots in their hands, Alex said they’ll still be bringing their best ideas to competitions.

“You really want to try and do your best, because once you get to worlds you need a functioning robot,” he said. “So you try to work out all those kinks as early as possible. You want to do your best, because if you’re at worlds and you have the worst robot it won’t really feel like you worked toward it.”

This semester, the TORC students will get to build and test their robot in a Lightning Technologies facility in Lake Orion. Lightning Technologies is an Oxford-based pallet company that is allowing TORC to use the facility for free.

“It really gives us a space where we can build a model field and gives us space to have our drive team practice making the robot do what it needs to,” Houston said.

In a show of support for the TORC team and STEM education, the newly-elected 12th District State Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills) was present at the Jan. 5 event to say a few words to students.

State Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills), pictured in the very center, poses with robotics students and mentors during the Jan. 5 kickoff event held at Oxford High School. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio.
State Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills), pictured in the very center, poses with robotics students and mentors during the Jan. 5 kickoff event held at Oxford High School. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio.

During an interview following her brief speech, Bayer described herself as “an absolute robot freak” and said exploring an  interest in robotics, as well as other forms of technology, is “not geeky, it’s cool.”

“I’ve worked with robots and computers my whole adult life and want to keep doing it,” she said. “So, I will help these guys as much as I can.”

Bayer is a proponent of STEM programs in schools and is particularly interested in “getting girls more involved” in them.

“FIRST robotics really does help prepare those kids for the next stage,” she said. “When we look at what’s needed for our economy, especially (in) Michigan, we need more high-tech. We need more people that are motivated to study that (field) and do work in that (sector). FIRST robotics is particularly  strong (when it comes to) bringing forward kids who will pursue technology as they go farther in school.”

As they get a robot ready for their first competition on March 7 in Belleville, the students look forward to building a robot that will take on the competition and make the Wildcat presence known all over the state.

“I wish they had it when I was a kid, quite frankly,” Houston said. “It’s really amazing. It’s an awesome program.”

C.J. Carnacchio contributed to this story.