Moffat County robotics program ready to take on the world at international FIRST event

Mo Co Robo poses with their robot, Bessie, in the machine shop at Moffat County High School. The group will compete at the FIRST Robotics Competition Championship April 20-23 in Houston.
Andy Bockelman/For Craig Press

With a mechanical progeny that has been slowly but surely reaching new heights, Moffat County High School students are heading for a new tier of competition.

Mo Co Robo will attend the FIRST Robotics Competition Championship from April 20-23 in Houston, Texas. The event is a worldwide competition that will test the tech contestants spent countless hours developing as they mastered engineering, coding and other scientific skills.

For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, is an educational program designed to enhance STEM learning for students in preschool through 12th grade through building, programming and maintaining robots.

“Boosted by a global support system of volunteers, educators, and sponsors that include over 200 of the Fortune 500 companies, teams operate under a signature set of FIRST Core Values to conduct research, fundraise, design, build and showcase their achievements during annual challenges,” according to FIRST.

On the rise

MCHS has been competing in FIRST since 2019, currently with a membership of 10 students, working with the help of three adult mentors — Kristen Nichols, Jeremy Boatman and Kyle Turner.

A strong performance at the Colorado Regional on March 23-26 at the University of Denver sent the group on to the international event that will determine some of the best and brightest coming up in robotics.

“Our alliance placed second overall, a group of three robots is an alliance. You play your playoff matches, 10 or 11 of them. Every playoff match is an alliance of three teams. It’s randomly preset,” said Kristen Nichols. “As you’re playing, you’re watching other teams, they’re watching you, so the top eight teams at the end of the playoffs each pick two other teams to play with them. They picked robots to complement what they do.”

The Mo Co Robo machinery, named Bessie, was especially proficient in the challenge of latching onto a series of metal bars that lifted it off the ground.

“Our robot will hook onto that first bar and climb all the way up to the top bar. That’s what clinched our alliance was getting up to that highest rung,” Nichols said. “We didn’t use hydraulics this year. We used chain drives to reach up and pull the robot up onto the stationary hooks.”

Heading into the next competition, Bessie will be getting an additional modification of a shooting mechanism that will scoop up volleyball-sized tennis balls and send them across the playing field.

“Our programmers are awesome because the motors on there can sense how far away they are from the goal, then this will turn and launch the ball,” Turner said. “They can slow the motor down or speed it up depending on how close they are. It’s pretty amazing.”

MCHS seniors Cody Eckhoff and Kadin Hume have been working on coding tasks for the team since their freshmen year, which was also the rookie year for Mo Co Robo as a whole.

Eckhoff said his proficiency in the activity has advanced greatly since then.

“I knew the very basic level of programming back then, but now I can actually walk in there and just see, ‘Oh yeah, we need to put this there or that there,” he said.

Evan Allen, also a senior, agreed that staying with the robotics program had increased his confidence in working with the technology.

“I felt like freshman year, engineering-wise, I was watching what was happening but not really interacting or doing a lot of it. I was just doing what I was told,” Allen said. “This year, I feel like I can take those steps myself. I know what’s happening, and I’m aware and understand all the concepts and complicated engineering ideas and theories behind all of it. Now I can put it together.”

Mentor Jeremy Boatman looks over the equipment involved in Mo Co Robo's machinery. The program at Moffat County High School includes 10 team members and three adult mentors.
Andy Bockelman/For Craig Press

Keep grinding

Working on Bessie has been an extensive process, and even though many of the team members know what they’re doing by now, it still requires a lot of dedication once the FIRST season kicked back into gear.

“The game was revealed the first weekend of January, so we’ve been here every night from 6 to 9 or 10 o’clock working on it, working Sundays and Saturdays. It’s a real long project,” Nichols said.

The MCHS shop has been hopping, though power tools and computer coding are only part of it, and senior Amelia Seim handles a different facet.

“I’ve been in charge of the media and the business aspect of it. I try to help bring that into the team more. In competitions, you have to draw up an actual business plan,” she said. “It’s about what our team is, how we’re made up, and how much money goes into the robot or how much we’re spending going on trips. They’ll judge that stuff and how we budget ourselves. We have to have a growth plan as part of it.”

She added that while it’s not her forte, she has a better grasp on engineering as a result of participating.

“We have good team members that know a lot about this stuff, so it’s really nice to have people that you’re close with teaching you how to do it,” Seim said.

Senior Chase Serio likewise said he had a greater appreciation for the field.

“I have a much better understanding of engineering, like I asked my dad to help me learn how to weld (and) I’ve done a lot more mechanic stuff,” he said. “I don’t have a bunch of engineering skill, but if there’s anything I can help out with, I will. If I need to write a paper for the business part, I can do that, or I helped out with the arms to pull up the robot.”

Turner noted that he’s observed significant growth in the students on the team.

“You don’t have to be a jack-of-all-trades to do a lot of this. It’s just real-world stuff. ‘This is what you need to build, no instructions. Go!'” he said. “The stuff they’ve come up with is truly impressive. These are the guys who will go out into the world and succeed. One of them will probably be my boss one of these days.”

What’s more, the group dynamic is excellent.

“No pun intended, but it’s a well-oiled machine here,” Turner said.

Remote robotics

After its rookie year, MCHS was on track for big things in 2020 when teams around the world had a shutdown with the COVID pandemic. The following year, FIRST was able to continue but with different parameters.

“We were one week away from competition when it got canceled, and then last year, it was just take all the stuff you’ve already built and then take a video of it and send it in,” Boatman said.

Eckhoff said he didn’t mind the remote approach, even if it wasn’t quite the same.

“They had an at-home challenge kind of thing, like you would set up a course that your robot had to go through as fast as possible,” he said. “They had a couple extra challenges last year, like innovation or game design, and since we’re such a small team we just did the game design.”

Still, being among other high school students and their machinery this spring was a vast improvement.

Especially in an environment where competing teams aren’t exactly cutthroat. Turner said opponents offer plenty of support and resources to each other where they can.

“It’s not like a sports rivalry here. You want to beat them, but one of the most amazing things I saw was we needed a 3/8 coupler, and people just rushed over,” he said.

Boatman added that everyone was eager to help.

“When our chain broke and we ran out of parts, we had three or four teams coming up and saying, ‘We have this. Can you use any of it?’ When we redid our chain mechanism, it was all other teams’ parts,” he said. “One of the motor mounts we had 3-D printed got broken, and we had to put it back together with zip-ties and electrical tape just to get back into the competition. Evan told us the other day that his perception of robotics is that everybody wants to win but nobody wants anybody to lose. That’s why you have the No. 1 team spending three hours with us trying to help us get ready.”

Building toward the future

Alex Nichols is another senior who has been part of Mo Co Robo since the start, and he’s loved the entire process.

“For me, it’s definitely the engineering and the team members. I’m friends with everybody here,” he said. “What we’ve built this year and what I’ve learned every single year, I think, will definitely be skills that will transfer through my future.”

He added that he’ll be majoring in mechanical engineering at University of Wyoming and hopefully will be able to engage in robotics in some capacity.

“They don’t do it through the FIRST company at the college level, but as a college student you can be a mentor for the high school teams and there are other companies that have robotics programs and competitions at that level,” Alex said.

For the MCHS mentors, the experience has been nothing but positive.

“I don’t think these guys realize the advantages they have with this. Not just companies or scholarships or college admissions or anything like that. It’s where they’re going to enter the workforce, years ahead of their peers,” Turner said. “They have a great attitude and it’s really amazing to watch them work and see what they come up with. When they do fail or something messes up, how they understand what they messed up and how to fix it, that’s the big thing. I would hire these guys, any of them, to work with me anytime.”

FIRST boasts numerous sponsors in STEM field, including NASA, Ford, Caterpillar, and Google to name a few, and many teams have mentors with connections to high-profile companies.

“We don’t have the professional mentors who work for Lockheed or Ball Aerospace, so we’ve got to do a lot of research on our own,” Boatman said.

As part of Tri-State Generation and Transmission, he certainly knows the benefits of the kind of learning that Mo Co Robo is absorbing.

“At the plant, I’m the control systems administrator, so essentially I’m in charge of the big robot out there,” he said. “That’s probably the best part is to be able to pass things on to someone who’s really interested in what I have to say. The toughest part is you only have six weeks to step into it like we do.”

Boatman added that the group’s ability to adapt on the fly was apparent during the regional event.

“It seemed like after every match we were back in the pits fixing the robot in some form. Some were so close together, we’d go from one match to another, be waiting in line, and be fixing it while we were in line,” he said. “There was a point where we had to entirely redo our chain mechanism in the middle of the competition, and it was all hands on deck. These guys worked so well together, and it was really apparent once the stress was on because they didn’t let it get to them. We just told them what we needed to fix and they got it done.”

Turner said he believes FIRST is the kind of program that can benefit kids of all ages in any community.

“I have kids who will be their age and up here in a few years, and I really hope they have the opportunity to do this,” he said. “If anybody really saw what this was all about, they would insist that their kids were here.”

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