2006 Chairman's Award Essay

A Team is Born

In 1998, among the stately buildings of Monta Vista High School, the passion between a small collection of solid friends produced a FIRST robotics team. With a pledge to join and advance the cause of inspiration in science and technology, this team was founded upon the principle of gracious professionalism and infused with an everlasting, insatiable curiosity. As wheels spun and sparks flew, the team grew within the community, gaining visibility and recognition.

As our team became more thoroughly rooted within the community, we naturally used our growth to support inspiration within the very surroundings that cultivated our love for robotics, engineering, and the sciences. We drew the interest of local engineers, professors, scientists, and teachers. Young students gazed wide-eyed at our annual demonstrations at Regnart Elementary, Lincoln Elementary, and Kennedy Middle schools. The community stood awed and inspired by our robot’s feats at demonstrations at the Tech Museum and the Silicon Valley Joint Venture Network.

Our team received more engineering support and engaged in more demonstrations on and off our campus. And our membership began to grow: from five original members, the team grew to today’s sixty members, inspired by our robots and animations, and eager to become part of this expanding miracle.

Developing a Culture of Support

We developed early partnerships with corporations such as Intel, Hitachi, Sand Hill Challenge, Venture Law Group, Advanced Micro Devices, Maxim Semiconductors, and NASA to provide financial support for our team. This year, we developed new ties with Lockheed Martin, Monster Cable, and Fry’s Electronics and received donations from families who see the importance of our work with their students. Our strongest partnership remains with the community itself where we have targeted fundraisers such as selling See’s Candies, working with Baja Fresh, selling at the De Anza Flea Market, and providing consumer reports for Angie’s List.

A critical partnership has been with the advisors, machinists, teachers, and parents involved with the team. We invite engineers to weekly design reviews, and involve many teachers at the school, inviting them to competitions and to the build. We have a very rich partnership with parents, and have tailored our web site and created an online newsletter to enhance communication with them. Past members of the team have often returned to FIRST, either mentoring other teams, as Travis Covington and Akshay Dodeja have done, or, as Galen Embry, Jon Pannell, and Patrick Wang have, returning to mentor our team. Among the many ways we thank those who support us is with an annual Awards Night.

In our third year, we started and mentored the Kennedy Middle School Lego League team. Building upon this, our team realized that it could work towards a far more vibrant local community by founding and mentoring high school robotics teams at other local schools. In that same year, we mentored high school teams at Homestead and Saratoga, both of which continue to thrive today. Even more importantly, the close relationship between our teams at inception has not dwindled; we continue to offer support to these teams. Many of our members worked with Saratoga for the three following years, and we helped Homestead restart after a year where many of its members graduated. We continue to support the local elementary schools; this year, we helped Lincoln Elementary students express their ideas for a sandwich-making robot. This innovative approach kept the students in control of their design and did not overwhelm them with unnecessary complexity.

We mentored Lynbrook in our fifth year and The Harker School and Kehillah Jewish High School in our sixth. Each of these teams was tremendously successful in the year we mentored them, with Harker and Kehillah both winning rookie all-star awards during that season, and both advancing to the eliminations at the Silicon Valley Regional. Furthermore, the close relationship one of our senior members had developed with Kehillah led him to become their chief mentor the following year. Our relationship with past mentees has developed into everlasting friendships. We have plans to help San Jose’s Downtown College Prep build their team past the rookie stage so it can continue to thrive and expand. This summer we will be making a presentation at the underprivileged Scott Lane Elementary School to encourage an interest in science.

We have worked closely with the Western Regional Robotics Forum (WRRF) over the years. Many of our students have worked directly with the group, including Rebecca Illowsky, who taught programming workshops two years ago, and Patrick Wang, who joined its leadership group after his graduation. This year our director of media, Eileen Laitinen, taught an animation workshop. Each year, we participate in the California Games competition and attend WRRF workshops.

In 2004 we restarted a rookie Lego League team with nine seventh graders from Kennedy; our team’s students were their sole mentors. The team qualified to the state tournament in two consecutive years and also won technical and programming awards. Shrenik Shah, the team’s first mentor, received an outstanding mentor award at the state tournament. His reflections on the team’s mentoring style are notable: after the mentors led several weeks of thorough training in mechanical and programming principles, only the younger students were allowed to touch the programs or the emerging robot. As a result, even with such a large team, all the students were engaged in accomplishing the wide variety of necessary tasks. This was reflective of our own team’s philosophy in being student designed and built. This year Pavan and Brij Datta continued to work with the Kennedy Lego League following the same philosophy of student-built robotics.

Rewards of Gracious Professionalism

Our investment in the community has yielded the team rich rewards. Since our second year, we have been placing well in the eliminations at each competition, including a second place finish at Silicon Valley Regional in 2001, 2002, and first place in 2003. We received the Cupertino Mayor’s award in 1999, the Engineering Inspiration award and the Woodie Flowers award for our mentor Ted Shinta in 2004. We won the Leadership in Control award in 2000 and 2001, and Xerox Creativity and General Motors Industrial Design awards in 2003. Last year we received the Judges’ Award for programming and creating a working autonomous keypad, and for having a successful coed team where girls played a prominent role. Our most successful performance to date has been winning the Curie Division at Nationals in 2001.

Mentoring and being mentored has advanced our technical skills. Our team has developed ambitious designs and programs over the years, and we are always working to help other teams succeed. We have continually offered mechanical advice upon request, and, especially in the case of teams we have mentored, offered substantial support through our own advisors and machinists.

Three years ago, we developed an innovative EEPROM recordable autonomous system and wrote a detailed manual containing the entire code, along with a careful walkthrough explaining its every aspect. For 2004 we ported our code from BASIC to C and rewrote the walkthrough, even though our robot did not use the autonomous program during that competition. We undertook the work because other teams had shown interest in the technology. Both Homestead and Los Altos, teams at Silicon Valley Regional employed our software in competition. The entire manual is publicly available.

In 2004 we developed and shared the Field Positioning System, which used IR beacons to calculate the precise position and orientation of the robot. The code and a ten-page walkthrough were made publicly available.

Team Philosophy

Our team was student founded and student led, and it remains that way. Our robot is designed and built by students. It has been our lasting philosophy to have the students create their own success. The team’s success was rooted in a carefully developed organizational structure. The wealth of documentation from early years, which we add to continually, as well as a handbook that we maintain, allow us to learn from past successes and shortcomings.

We take our commitment to the students seriously. Each year, we strive to create a training process that diminishes the gap between rookie and veteran members, and each year, we succeed in having at least one all-rookie group that develops an important part of our robot. In past years, rookie tasks included anything from the chassis to a goal grabber, and this year, it includes the ball shooter and basket. Since our trainings have developed over the years, carefully tuned for effectiveness, we have faith even in first-year members to perform. This approach also eliminates the problem of veteran members dominating the team’s activities, and graduating without leaving a legacy behind. This year we have had even more rookie designed components than in previous years. Team members who had never had a chance to do original design got to do so. The media team worked together to produce both the safety animation and the main animation. The media team also redesigned the MVRT website, which we have entered for competition.

Our team is philosophically committed to expanding interest in robotics throughout the community, and we strive to continue our tradition of expanding the message of FIRST to all the teams in the area. Five other FIRST robotics teams are flourishing today because of our drive to spread the spark of inspiration in science and technology.