The 76ers might have some tough local competition they don’t know about: a hoop shooting robot.
A team of Julia R. Masterman Laboratory & Demonstration School students and their mentors competed in the FIRST Robotics Championship in St. Louis with the bot last month, taking home the Rookie Inspiration award, which rewards a new team that has worked to spread engineering and FIRST principles, Atomic Robotics mentor and recent Penn mechanical engineering graduate Jay Lopez told Technically Philly.
About 25 Masterman students worked with a group of about ten mentors from the nonprofit organization Atomic Robotics 4H, which provides professional engineering mentors to high school robotics teams in Philadelphia.
The FIRST Robotics Championship (FRC) is a national technology competition for high school students held by FIRST, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit organization focused on inspiring youth to become leaders in technology and the sciences.
This year, the championship challenge was “Rebound Rumble,” a competition in which “alliances” made up of three robotics teams matched their robots head to head to make as many as baskets as possible in two-minute and 15-second hoop shootoffs.
Each team, including Masterman’s, had six weeks to build the basketball-playing robot. Masterman students worked with a group of about ten mentors from Atomic Robotics to design the robot and build two copies, Atomic Robotics cofounder Agata Ciesielski told Technically Philly. Atomic Robotics also directly managed the team, a program which also included a full off-season robotics mini-course during the first half of the school year and about $25,000 in funding support thanks to Atomic Robotics sponsors.
The group also did some worked out of the nearby 3D prototyping workshop NextFab, who comped the team memberships.
Over the course of the season, the Atomic Dragons won a total of six awards including the FRC award, Ciesielski, who is a graduate student at Penn’s GRASP Laboratory, said.
The win represents a major victory for the young Atomic Dragons robotics program, which will no longer require direct management from Atomic Robotics. Though the high school team will still receive mentorship and space support from the outside group.
More importantly, Lopez says the experience was inspirational for the students, who worked upwards of 20 hours a week to prepare for competition. Two-thirds of the Dragons’ graduating seniors are planning to study engineering in college, Lopez, 21, told Technically Philly.
“Their teachers brag about the fact that multiple students who had never really found their activity at Masterman have embraced the robotics team and really come out of their shell,” Lopez said. “Despite being from different grades, social groups and backgrounds, the team has become a big family.”
The Atomic Dragons’ success story is also a boost to advocates of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, especially the Dragons’ mentors, the Atomic Robotics 4H Club.
Ciesielski, 26, and Boeing aerospace engineer JJ Biel-Goebel, 34, founded the club after noticing two separate but troubling trends: extreme cuts in school funding for extracurricular activities and decreasing availability of Boeing-caliber engineers.
The organization fosters two types of engagement with school robotics programs: direct management, in which the team exists under the Atomic Robotics umbrella, and support, in which mentors still guide a robotics program but the school or other organization takes responsibility for ownership.
Thanks to success with the Atomic Dragons and a variety of new sponsorshipss, Atomic Robotics will be expanding its programming over the course of the coming year. In addition to supporting the Dragons and the team at Central High School, AR will be setting up what are called VEX teams at schools interested in building and competing with smaller robots as well as providing space to teams that have all the resources they need but not place to work, Ciesielski told Technically Philly.
In the long term, Ciesielski and Biel-Goebel hope to create a larger network that not only routes high school kids to college degrees in engineering but also provides them with the skills and connections to find a good job. As programs like the Atomic Dragons continue to succeed at robotics with the help of Atomic Robotics, the 76ers may soon find themselves more concerned about free throw shooting robots than the Boston Celtics.
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