The Powerstackers, a FIRST Tech Challenge robot building team from Dayton checks over their robot during a competition. After a season of competing in events in West Virginia, Indiana and Ohio, the team took home second place from the First championship in Detroit in April. (Courtesy photo)

Competitive teams use robots to build better kids

The FIRST Championship was held in Detroit April 24-27, and Team 5029, the Powerstackers, coached by William Pickl, an engineering branch chief, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, Business Systems Division, and his wife, Teri, competed against 159 teams from around the world, taking second place.

“I initially started coaching FIRST Lego League with my sons in 2009, when they were younger, and now my wife and I mentor with our daughters, Corinne, 13 and Cailey, 12,” said Pickl. “This year we moved up to FIRST Tech Challenge with the Powerstackers at the beginning of the season in September 2018.”

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He explained that the goal of FIRST is not to use kids to build better robots, but to use robots to build better kids.

The Pickls traveled with the team to several qualifying competitions in West Virginia, Indiana and Ohio, winning several awards during the season to include setting the high score in Ohio, thus winning the Ohio state championship.

“That win earned the team the right to travel to Detroit to compete against the other teams from around the world,” Pickl said. “Their robot performed well, and the design was a hit with the judges, helping the team win second place in the world for best overall design, control, performance and community outreach.”

He stressed that the kids learn a variety of skills that can possibly “jump start” future technical careers by teaching: leadership, teamwork, presentations, computer aided design, programming, how to use machine shop tools and 3D printing.

“We emphasize letting the kids do the work, and as mentors we guide and teach them concepts like tolerance, structural design, project management and other skills,” said Pickl.

Their winning robot had more than 1,000 parts, many of which were fabricated from aluminum stock by the kids or printed by Pickl’s 3D printer. Additionally, they learned about affordability during their design project.

“The vertical lift, which has to lower and lift the robot from a lunar lander mockup as part of the game was driven more by finding an affordable bearing ($1 instead of $10 each), and designing around it since the lift needed 16 bearings,” he said. “The team has to raise its own funding; so managing cost, schedule and performance is a key skill for the students to learn.”

Apparently patience was a key component to the team’s winning project because Pickl mentioned that during the season there were several subsystems that were redesigned as lessons were learned during their competitions: the vertical lift has two versions; the horizontal slide went through five versions, and the game piece collector and scoring system went through four design changes throughout the seven-month season.

To learn more about the FIRST organization, go to: www.firstinspires.org.

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