Three county teams make robotics world championship

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Photos by Isabelle Marchand
Team 7002 at the Blacksburg are the Little Pandas from the four Blacksburg elementary schools.

FIRST is an acronym “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” and promotes hands-on STEM and gracious professional ideals through robotics competitions for students.


Montgomery County has the distinction of having not just one team, not two but three local robotics teams at the FIRST World Championship in St. Louis this week.

These three FIRST robotic teams represent three different levels of FIRST with 6 to 18 year old students from 16 different schools in the county from kindergarten to 12th grade. This accomplishment cannot be found in other Virginia localities and is worthy of community support for the teams’ members who loaded charter buses Tuesday to compete against 1,394 teams from every state in the United States and 38 other countries.

FIRST offers four levels of robotic competitions. The lowest level is Junior FIRST Lego League (FLLJr). Guided by adult coaches, students in grades kindergarten through 4th grade explore a real-world scientific problem. The 2016 season theme was “Creature Craze” to highlight the habitats and animal allies of endangered honeybees.

Team 7002, the Little Pandas, created a poster that illustrated their discovery of the bees and what threatens them. Little Pandas team, which has six students from four Blacksburg elementary schools, constructed a Lego model and included We-Do motors, which they programmed. During this process, the Little Pandas learned about teamwork, the wonders of science and technology, and the core values of respect, sharing, and critical thinking.

Coach Debbie Clark said, “We met once a week. We learned facts about the bees. The kids really enjoyed the gross parts. They had a good time doing science. “

The Little Pandas participated in an expo in March at the Blacksburg High School. Coach Isabelle Marchand said, “They impressed the judges so much during this expo that the national FIRST organization contacted Virginia- FIRST and asked if we could represent Virginia at the World Championship.”

Little Panda member Lily Clark is a 2nd grader from Harding Avenue Elementary School. She was already familiar with FIRST because her older brothers were involved in upper levels of FIRST. Lily is excited about making new friends in St. Louis. She said, ”FLLJr is so much fun.

I like programming the We-Do the best. I will be proud to show everyone in St. Louis what I learned about different kinds of bees.”

Little Pandas were created last year by the New River Robotics Association which also sponsors the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) Team 4924, the Tuxedo Pandas.

Team 4924 with the Motivate Award at the East Super-Regionals in Scranton, PA. The Tuxedo Pandas are enrolled grades 8-12 schools in Montgomery County.

The thirteen student members are in grades 8-12 and attend four schools in Montgomery County. According to the Coach Franky Marchand, “This is the fifth trip in a row to the World Championship for the Tuxedo Pandas. These students are now convinced that with hard work and passion the sky is the limit!”

Velocity Vortex was this season’s challenge theme in which the Tuxedo Pandas started working on concepts and building a robot back in September 2016. The robot had to be designed to turn on beacons, launch the correct color balls into a matching color chute while hoping to cap the chute with an exercise ball before the match time runs out.

Each match, Team 4924 had one alliance partner competing against two other FTC teams on twelve feet by twelve feet field. After two qualification tournaments, the Tuxedo Pandas advanced to the Virginia Championship and onward to East Super-Regionals where they earned the Motivate Award and another trip to the St. Louis.

Marchand said, “The team were practicing hard and still making improvements to the robot to be able to get the toughest points in the game while facing the best opponents of the season.”

Building and programming robots is one aspect of FIRST, outreach and communication with the community about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is strongly encouraged. The winning of the Motivate Award by the Tuxedo Pandas confirmed their efforts in the past year.

Deniz Olgun is a BMS 8th grader who wants to do his best on presentations about all Tuxedo Pandas outreach efforts to judges on his first trip to St. Louis.

Olgun said, “It is a lot of hard work to be on this team. I am constantly talking to the kids about how great robotics is, inviting them to visit our team, and how to start their own team. It is so much fun to spend so many hours with the Pandas in the community.”

Jackie Wang is an 8th grader at Blacksburg Middle School. She believes her first trip to the World Championship will be a fun experience while still working on the robot. Wang said, “I am excited to meet other teams. I want to also compete hard and try my best to be a valuable team member.”

Jessa Braak is also an 8th grader attending St. John Newman Academy and is making her second trip to St. Louis with the Tuxedo Pandas. Braak is excited to meet people from different countries. Braak said, “Even if we speak different languages, we all speak robotics.”

MCPS Team 401 Copperheads after a win at the Chesapeake District Championship.

Making its second trip in two years to the World Championship is the Montgomery County Public Schools own FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Team 401 Copperheads. Students and teachers from all four high school strands along with college and community mentors have been working like a corporate business trying to get over eighty team members divided into sub-teams to collaborate from concept and prototype to a built 120-pound robot in only six weeks.

Alex Barrett is a sophomore at Christiansburg High School. This will be her first year on Team 401 and going to St. Louis.

Barrett said, “It is a lot of work in those six weeks to get an idea to become something real that does what you imagined. This is beyond anything else I have ever done.”

Mentor Brandon Landreth works at Polymer Solutions, was a member of Team 401 for 3 years and is now a fifth year mentor for his former FRC team. He recognizes the huge amount of work the team had to sustain to get from the January 9th reveal of the competition guidelines to St. Louis FIRST Championship.

Landreth said, “We fell behind this season because there is a lot to learn. The last three weeks of the build season were crazy but students had to plan and be thinking of back-up plans for when something did not work. With super limited time, students have to make the robot work.”

The 2017 season’s theme Steamworks proved challenging to the Copperheads. Their robot had to pick up balls and dispense them high or low for points while delivering “gears” to make a rotors spin.

While competing on a basketball sized field with two alliance partners against 3 FRC opponents, the robot must climb a rope 4-foot high in the last thirty seconds. An FRC robot can take a beating in each match thus requiring numerous repairs by a pit crew of students. All the while, fellow team members are scouting other teams for the best alliances and strategies.

The Copperheads played well into the quarter and semi-finals in the Blacksburg and Hampton Roads qualifiers. The high schoolers were able to advance to the Chesapeake District Championship where FRC teams from Maryland, D.C. and Virginia competed for their slot in the World Championship.

The Engineering Inspiration Award earned Team 401 that World Championship slot because of the team’s outstanding success in advancing respect and appreciation for engineering within a team, the schools and the community.

Rebecca Abbott-McCune is a senior at Blacksburg High School, “We’ve worked tremendously hard in increasing our team’s outreach and service in both our robotics and local communities. It all paid off, and here we are going to St. Louis.”

BHS 9th grader Cameron Earle sees the World Championship as chance to expand his learning. Earle said, “I want to reach out to other teams. I want to attend conferences especially on how to improve programming of the robot next year.

Only 55 students from these FIRST teams can attend the FIRST World Championship. The four-day competition in St. Louis is expensive. Team 401, 4924 and 7002 have been fundraising intensely in the last two weeks to cover the costs of registration fees, charter busses, lodging and food.

All team members are delighted to have their FLLJr, FTC and FRC teams to be among the best in the world at St. Louis. Students have noticed the impact of FIRST; from better understanding of computer-aided-design, programming, and electrical wiring to improved teamwork, problem solving and communication skills. Copperheads, Tuxedo Pandas and Little Pandas are looking forward to demonstrating, among 60,000 expected attendees, their FIRST skills as well as their pride for their teams of friends, and representation of the schools they attend and their hometown of Montgomery County, Virginia.

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