In the lead-up to the world championships, the lower level of the Arconic Learning Center is humming with activity every night: The 14 members of the FIRST Winter Soldiers are busy testing and troubleshooting the robot they’ve been working on all season.
Several Quad-City area FIRST Tech Challenge robotics teams will head to Detroit to compete with the best robotics teams in the world Wednesday through Saturday: the Winter Soldiers, the Mortal Combots from Davenport Schools and the Finger Puppet Mafia from Central DeWitt.
Varun Vedula, a Pleasant Valley senior, is the sole original member of a team he started with his mom, Sravanthi Vedula, five years ago. She still serves as their coach, along with Janene Murphy.
“We’ve been really good at keeping a cycle together, so not everyone graduates at once,” Varun Vedula said. “It’s been great to see us progress. The first year, we didn’t go anywhere or expect much.
“The thing that defined my time in high school was robotics.”
Over at Davenport West High School, Jason Franzenburg is prepping two teams -- one for FIRST Tech Challenge and another for the FIRST Robotics Challenge, which competes with a larger robot -- for Detroit.
Franzenburg helped bring FIRST competitions to West within a year or two of the program coming to Iowa; the team is 10 years old.
“A lot of the teams are just starting,” he said. “I’m getting to see kids come back and get jobs in the area.”
While the Winter Soldiers are a “neighborhood team” -- they’re not affiliated with a particular school, but their members are largely in the Pleasant Valley School District -- the Mortal Combots are aligned with an engineering program through West. This year’s team is very senior-heavy -- 11 of the 14 will graduate this year -- but newer students practice with similar materials so they’ll be able to step up in the future.
One position that’s harder to fill than others? Programmers.
“It’s just like the job market -- they’re really valuable,” said West senior Alexa Christensen.
Aiden Yaklin, a home-schooled sophomore, for example, is the WInter Soldiers' only programmer.
“I got into programming because I wanted to modify Minecraft,” he said. “So I learned Java, and I got hooked on it.”
The FTC challenge involves several challenges, including programming the robot to sort through “minerals” -- gold cubes and silver balls -- for points, as well as creating a program to help the robot pick and lock onto a target automatically, without anyone controlling it.
Building and programming a robot is impressive enough, but FIRST also stresses the importance of teamwork, outreach, and business and marketing plans.
“It’s not what I expected it to be,” said Lily Dumas, a freshman on the Winter Soldiers team who is heavily involved in outreach. “There’s so much more than robots.”
One of the hardest things, Christensen said, is letting people know that FIRST isn’t battlebots.
“It’s our job to make sure we’re recognized and people know what we do,” she said. “If we can’t out think a problem, we can out work it.”
Many of the Mortal Combots seniors are planning on attending in-state schools to major in engineering, industrial design and computer science. After spending so much time together, Christensen said she’s excited her teammates won’t be too far as they move on to college.
“Working the mind is just as hard as working the body,” West senior JJ Peiffer said. “This is a sport, and we bond as a team. You can’t just leave that behind.”