Members of the Vertigo robotics team at Highland Park High School spent months perfecting their robot’s ability to execute the tasks of this year’s First Tech Challenge and autonomously carry out new instructions using artificial intelligence technology.
But Vertigo’s first place state win Feb. 24 hinged on a collaboration with two competitors. Going into the final round, Carmel Catholic High School’s top-ranked NYAN team (Not Your Average Nerds) selected second-place Vertigo as a partner. Rounding out the three-team alliance was Robo Raiders, a home school team from downstate St. Clair County.
For most of the competition, two teams are randomly paired against two other teams. The match-ups test players’ ability to adapt, rethink strategy and draw on the strengths of teams who may otherwise be their rivals.
“It forces teams to cooperate with each other to strategize how to beat another pair of teams,” said Brian Donahoe, an engineer and Carmel alumnus who coaches the school’s varsity NYAN team. “It is not unlike how engineers like myself do their real work.”
Donahoe said the ideas and designs of engineers often are incorporated with those of other designers.
“I think it is really cool how First Tech Challenge is organized,” said HPHS junior Jackie Hirsch, a Vertigo team member. “Sometimes the people you team up with can be your opponents in another match.”
The state win means Vertigo, NYAN and Robo Raiders will be among the six dozen teams from nine states to participate in the super-regional competition in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on March 15 through March 17.
Of the 177 Illinois high school teams that entered the First Tech Challenge this year, 44 made it to the state competition in Elgin.
Brendan Chay, Vertigo co-captain and programmer, said the team has formed close ties with other teams as a result of an alliance, and that increases the competitive fun of the tournaments.
“We’re competing against friends rather than against random, nameless people,” said Chay, a Highland Park senior who plans to major in computer science in college.
“The random selection of alliance partners also allows for us to see a much higher number of robots perform,” Chay added. “We’re able to diagnose and correct our own weaknesses to improve our robot for future tournaments.”
Vertigo won the Control Award for best programming at the state level. Chey said one notable feature was their robot’s ability to suck in cubes from any angle, which cut down on the time required to retrieve the cubes and individually stack them into a pattern by color.
It’s no accident that the First Tech Challenge robotics competition follows the sports team model — up to a point.
“We understand that people really like sports in America, so we have adopted a sports model for what we call the ‘varsity sport of the mind’,” said Jonathan Weiland, a Highland Park High School biology teacher who coaches the schools’ robotics teams. “We have standings, league championships. You can follow the robotics program just like you can follow sports.”
A key tenet of the First Tech Challenge robotics program is what’s called “gracious professionalism,” a phrase the program has trademarked. Though not specifically defined, the phrase generally refers to a spirit of friendly competition, courtesy, compassion and respect.
“If you go to almost any Little League sports event, you will see parents yelling at coaches and referees,” Weiland said. “Because in robotics your opponent could be your partner in the next match, we just don’t participate in anti-social behavior. We give awards for ‘gracious professionalism’.”
Teams are judged not only on how well their robot performs, but on their fundraising plans to cover team costs, community outreach and efforts to get younger pupils involved in robotics, Weiland said.
The Highland Park teacher often points out the irony that so many young people aspire to become professional athletes while the money — and jobs — are in technology.
Weiland estimates that out of 15,000 students who have graduated during his 23 years at Highland Park, about 15, or one-tenth of one percent, have gone on to play for a professional team at any level.
“Everyone on my robotics team turns pro,” Weiland said, of the acquired skills that are invaluable in any line of work.
Donahoe has seen a substantial increase in robotics interest at Carmel during the short two years of the program.
“We have had 60 to 80 students apply to be on the teams,” Donahoe said. “It greatly helped that last year’s team made it all of the way to the World Championship and we were ranked in the top one percent worldwide.”
He said robotics is a key component of Carmel’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program and a great first step into those career fields.