(Photo by Tajha Chappellet-Lanier)
Suddenly, all five faces are turned expectantly my way. “C’mon, dance with us!” they encourage, temporarily pausing their impromptu dance party.
“Oh, no,” I stammer, suddenly feeling like I’m the one in middle school. “I’m not a great dancer.” (This, to be clear, is an understatement.) “Just one dab?” they ask. I pause, then concede, lowering my forehead into the crook of my elbow and mimicking a gesture I’ve only ever seen others complete. It must have come out alright, though — I raise my head to a boisterous cheer from my five new friends.
It’s a balmy spring afternoon and I’m in the Navy Yard meeting with Team Fresh T.E.C.H., the five students who make up the Living Classrooms 2017 robotics team. The after-school STEM nonprofit’s team is small, but certainly mighty: it has already beat 40 teams to win the FIRST Chesapeake Greater DC District Competition, held its own at the FIRST Chesapeake Regional Competition, and is now headed to the World Championships. They’ve competed in 43 matches across two competitions and are rated No. 1 in D.C. and No. 15 (out of 143) in the DMV region.
“Yep, we’re that good,” team member Nyjai tells me, with attitude.
But not everyone on Team Fresh T.E.C.H. is so inclined to discuss their accomplishments. “I don’t like sounding cocky,” robot driver Quamé tells me. Plus, he’s knows they’ve still got their biggest challenge ahead.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. How did these five students end up here, in this classroom, with a robot in a plastic bag and a dabbing journalist? Let’s start at the beginning.
Dominique Skinner, Living Classrooms’ robotics program director, is the “Joe Jackson” of the situation, she says. Her Jackson 5 starts with Taniha (who also runs on a track team that Skinner coaches), the not-cocky Quamé and his sister Ajá. Quamé and Ajá introduced Nyjai (their cousin) and Marquis (Quamé’s “friend from around the way”) to the opportunity. Nyjai is in 11th grade; the rest are 7th graders.
None had any previous robotics experience, and only Taniha had any particular interest. She’s quiet the whole time I’m with the students, but firm about where her interest lies. “I want to be an engineer,” she said.
FIRST Robotics revealed the 2017 challenge on Jan. 7, and that’s when it really all started. The team (like FIRST league teams around the country) had six weeks to build the best robot possible. So they got together with professional mentor Andrew Magaletti (engineer at the U.S. Department of Transportation) and mapped out a chart of how the challenge works and how they might be able to win the highest number of points.
Now’s a good time to admit that, prior to this experience, I had no idea how robotics competitions work. Turns out, they’re pretty complicated.
Essentially the league comes up with a challenge game. The game, in the case of FIRST’s 2017 challenge, is played three-on-three — three robots cooperating to get the greatest number of points. Individual robots are paired at random until the finals, at which point the top eight teams get to choose who will join their side for the remainder of the competition. The games are generally composed of a variety of different tasks, all of which require different skills. Therefore, if you get to pick your side-mates, it’s a good idea to pick robots that have distinct skills to the one you’ve built.
Here’s a concept video for the FIRST Robotics league 2017 challenge, which might help explain things further:
Game concept understood, it was time to get building. “We focused on the ones that get you more points so we can be better and go to World Championships, like we are now!” Nyjai laughed, by way of explaining how the design of the robot came up.
Now, after two rounds of competition, the flat, square-shaped robot is in its final form. But the team is still tinkering with small things — fixes and improvements. The robot spends most of its time in a big plastic bag, but the team has a certain number of “unbagged hours” they can use to make those fixes.
I’m lucky — the team has decided to use some “unbagged” time to show it off to me, too. Magaletti and Quamé unbag the beast, and I watch as Ajá feeds a gear into its “mouth” (a key part of this year’s challenge is collecting and moving these gears). Quamé drives the bot carefully around the small classroom — “I play games a lot,” he says, when asked why he was chosen as driver.
Team Fresh T.E.C.H. will have their work cut out for them at the World Championships in St. Louis later this week. With just five team members, they’re a lot smaller than the other 400 teams that will be competing.
But they’ve got at least one strategic advantage — pure passion. And this brings us back to the impromptu dance party at the top of this story. Team Fresh T.E.C.H. is known for dancing on the field of play during games — they know how to keep the crowd “hype” and the other teams wanting to learn their moves, Nyjai tells me. I can see why: their enthusiasm is infectious. Marquis, who is almost silent during my time chatting with the team, breaks out in the biggest grin the moment the music starts.
So it’s safe to say that Team Fresh T.E.C.H. is feeling pretty good going into this weekend (the FIRST World Championships in St. Louis takes place April 26 to 29). “It’s amazing that we have this opportunity,” Nyjai said. All five faces grinned.