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By Jeremy McKinney
Dunlap Codding, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

It is the end of the Oklahoma Regionals of the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC for short), and as I sit here in the “pit” reflecting on this year’s robotics season I feel privileged and honored to have been a small part of team 5578, the Metro Mechanical Monsters from Oklahoma City, OK.

For those who may not be familiar with FRC, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a non-profit organization formed by Dean Kamen (inventor of the Segway) to introduce and promote science, engineering, and technology skills to school-age young people. FRC is the top tier of the FIRST Robotics programs, with high school aged students designing and building competitive robots over a six-week period. Each year there is a unique game with a number of challenges that the students must analyze, then decide which challenges they want to tackle and the requirements for doing so, then design, build, and test a robot that accomplishes those goals.

At the FRC level, all the teams get a “kit of parts” each year, but it is far from a "build your own robot kit.” Instead, the kit consists of materials common to most of the robots such as control system components, a few motors and motor controllers, some sensors and switches, and various other bits and pieces to get the team started. The team must then acquire or fabricate everything else they need to build their robot.

My firm, Dunlap Codding, has been a sponsor of the FRC Oklahoma Regional competition for the last ten years. This is the third year I have had the privilege of working with the Mechanical Monsters, and I couldn’t be more proud of what they have accomplished. For the last couple of years, we have hacked together what could be loosely referred to as “robots” that moved about (most of the time), but were not great at accomplishing the assigned game tasks. As you’d expect, we did not place highly in competition, but we did have fun and we learned what not to do, mostly by doing things wrong.

This year, the students wisely enlisted the help of a more experienced team who graciously included them in their initial strategy session where both teams spent “kickoff day” analyzing this year’s game, talking strategy, and forming a plan for the six-week build period. The students and coaches then came together to design, build, test, re-design, re-build, test again, re-design... well, you get the idea. What inspires me most about this group, is they kept working through the problems that surfaced over, and over, and over again, right up to the last morning of competition, in fact, to field a robot that not only worked but placed 16th overall out of 61 teams in the Oklahoma Regional.

While doing well in the competition was an accomplishment that was celebrated by the team, and rightfully so, it is not the focus of FRC or the coaches and mentors of the Mechanical Monsters. Building a robot and participating in competitions are merely vehicles designed to introduce students to engineering, science, and technology and get them more interested in possibly pursuing a STEM career.

The Mechanical Monsters have already shown an interest in STEM, they are all students of the Metro Technology Center STEM Academy. As participants in the STEM Academy, students leave their home schools to attend the STEM Academy half the day to take classes such as advanced math, chemistry, physics, and pre-engineering—classes that are not available at their home schools. Participation in the FRC gives these students the opportunity to apply many of the things they learn in class in a real-world scenario where they gain invaluable hands-on experience. It is the goal of the coaches, mentors, and instructors at the STEM Academy that the students’ experiences in FRC will enhance what they have learned and solidify their desire to pursue STEM further.

Only time will tell if that goal was accomplished with this year’s group of Monsters, but one thing is sure, we had fun and I will never forget this amazing group of young people.

Video of a couple of Team 5578’s matches at the Oklahoma Regionals: