It filled Nicholson Pavilion with screaming fans in face paint and mascot costumes. But it wasn’t basketball.

It was robot Frisbee.

Some 2,000 people and 50 teams turned out for the first Central Washington Regional Championship at Central Washington University for the FIRST Robotics Competition for high school students over the weekend.

The teams came from across Washington, and some from Oregon and Idaho. A 12-person team from Thorp High School was Kittitas County’s sole representatives, and had its own version of a March Madness Cinderella story.

“It’s really remarkable,” said Randi Helveston, a sophomore who helped with the team robot’s programming. “Because when we got here, it didn’t run.”

Thorp’s robot had a host of technical problems when it arrived Thursday, but the team ended up winning most of its matches.

FIRST

The FIRST Robotics Competition is an age group/league in the FIRST robotics education program. FIRST means For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

The nonprofit group sponsors activities for students of all age ranges to engage them with science and technology. The younger teams start with simple Lego robots, and the high school teams, like the one at CWU this past weekend, work with 100-plus pound designs to perform complex tasks.

Each year, the “game” is different, and so are the robots. This year, two groups of three allied teams’ robots compete against each other to score points by either shooting Frisbees into goals at the other end of the area or by climbing jungle-gym-like towers.

The robots work autonomously for the first 15 seconds, and then the teams’ drivers take control.

Helveston said one team was able to build and program a robot that could shoot Frisbees far enough and accurately enough it could just sit at one end of the arena and rack up points.

Some robots could both shoot and climb, but only one robot was able to climb all the way to the top of the tower.

“Everybody was, like, exploding the first time when it climbed to the top,” she said. “I didn’t hear anything but screaming.”

Math and science in action

The team’s coach and adviser, Thorp High School teacher Phil Kern, said he’d been looking for different ways to apply math and physics to something more tangible, and had toyed with other robotics programs and building trebuchets before finding the FIRST program.

“Trying to fit more hands-on stuff into this so that the kids can understand exactly this is why it’s a good idea to understand math and science,” he said.

Through grants and sponsorships, they raised $12,000 toward fees and equipment costs, and the team ended up using most of it.

“I’s amazing when you start buying these parts,” he said. “It goes pretty fast.”

The students worked in Kern’s applied physics class and after school, sometimes putting in 10-hour Saturdays to get the robot working.

Some, more established teams, have budgets large enough they can afford the tools to actually fabricate their own parts beyond the basic kits FIRST offers.

One team even built a crowd-pleasing T-shirt launcher along with a robot, Helveston said.

Programming

Even though she had no coding experience, Thorp senior Alex Houle said, after finally succumbing to Kern’s nagging to join the team, she ended up doing the bulk of the programming.

“It was really frustrating in the beginning. I didn’t know anything about what I was doing,” she said. “And then as we went on I’ve learned a lot, and it’s been a really great experience. I’m really happy I joined.”

FIRST is competitive. But between the point counting and robot foul calls — and the throngs of rabid fans wearing Viking helmets or wielding light sabers — is what FIRST organizers call “gracious professionalism.”

The three-team groups that go into the arena are usually a mix of new, mid-level and experienced teams. The robots work together to shoot Frisbees or climb while the others try to bump around opponents to keep them from getting in scoring position.

The team pit shops, where the students work on their robots, are arranged so every new team is near an experienced team.

Coaches, team mentors and students mill around between matches and gladly offer help or equipment to other teams. The Thorp team was able to get its robot’s programming troubles sorted out thanks to the help of a code-savvy member of another team.

“When you’re playing softball you don’t go over to the other team and say, ‘Hey, can I work on my swing?’ and ‘Will you show me how to do this?’ It just doesn’t happen,” Houle said. “But here I can walk up to any of the teams and say I need some help programming and they are more than happy to come over and help. It’s incredible.”

Next year

Kern said he hopes to find students and sponsors for a team next year. 

“The fact that we showed up with something that didn’t run, and we’ve been successful … It’s been amazing,” he said.

The Thorp Tigers placed 22nd out of 50 teams, and won a trophy for coming in with the most points as a rookie team.

“It’s really neat because they didn’t really know what they were getting into,” he said. “It was good experience. Kids are talking about next year, so we’re hoping we can manage to pull enough money together to do it again.”

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