Wired Together With Team X

May 14, 2018

Four competitors stand in the center of the arena. A giant stopwatch looms over them—15 seconds on the clock. Multi-colored cones are scattered across the field. The competitors eye each other warily, each one anxious to begin their tasks. They stroll around the arena, testing their strength and maneuverability as the surrounding audience sits intently in their seats, waiting for the beginning of the match. Clad in metal, screws and wires, the robots are ready to compete.

 

Three students—junior Michelle Manku, senior Jonathan Huang and sophomore Vianna Seifi—stand beside the arena, controllers in their hands. Their robot, Alexandria, sits in the corner in a maze of cones. It is the day of the Orchard Hills Middle School Tustin Unified School District Robotics Tournament and Beckman’s 2496X team, one of the five Beckman Robotics teams, waits for its round to begin. Everyone in the audience is watching the clock; the team members grip their controllers tightly; the MC counts down: three…two…one….  

 

***

The evening sun shines into the empty classroom, gears, wires and cones strewn across the desks. A robotics championship poster covers a large portion of the classroom wall. In the front of the room, on the top of the cupboard, is a seemingly endless line of trophies from robotics competitions. A lifeless classroom at first, the room is still but soon students fill in the seats and the classroom comes to life. The stomping of feet sweeps through the room and is soon joined by the sound of wheels squeaking as they roll across the floor. Backpacks, empty food wrappers, open laptops and stationery join the clutter. 10 minutes pass and multiple teams are gathered around their respective robots. This is the home of Beckman Robotics.

 

Beckman Robotics is a VEX program run entirely by the students, with Mr. Siu-Kong Sit, the engineering teacher, as the advisor. Out of the 80 applicants who apply for this rigorous program, only 40 get accepted, most coming from middle school robotics programs. The accepted applicants then take on at least one of many different roles, all essential in creating a robot: programmers, note-takers, builders and drivers. Members of each respective role are placed into five separate teams: Team R, Team N, Team V, Team Y and Team X. “We’re all expected to rely on each other in order to succeed as a team,” explains Jonathan Huang. As the only boy and senior on Team X, Jonathan felt slightly out of place at first, even though it was his second year on the team. In a field dominated by males, his situation is unique but a welcomed sign of the changing demographics of robotics. He has developed a close bond with the other members of Team X, especially with Vianna, whom he works with as a driver.

 

Along with Jonathan and Vianna, Michelle Manku occasionally serves as a driver, though her main role as a programmer delegates her to the coding of the robot. The other members of the team—Gnamitha Naganathanahalli, Hailey Park, Surabhi Tadvalker and Anna Spence—are all builders who construct the physical parts that make up the robot. Misha Seifi, Vianna’s sister, is in charge of the engineering notebook where she records ideas, observations and every small detail about the machine’s progress.

 

In the back of the room, cones are scattered across a mock arena. One by one, the robots are placed onto the stage. Several students begin to surround the arena, attentively testing the robot with their eyes dialed in as other students sit at a desk, crunching codes onto their computers. Manipulating the robot is no simple task. It requires the utmost concentration and a great deal of finesse. Every variable holds the same weight as the other—not one measurement can be ignored in order to produce championship-calibre results. Regardless of these major pressures, the environment buzzes with excitement. Team members cheer on their robots, relishing the competitive atmosphere.

 

Despite their arduous tasks, Team X constantly laughs and jokes with each other while their hands work with the complicated robot below them. Their deadline is in five months, but with the experience of a veteran team like X, they only need three. They are to construct a machine that is capable of stacking cones on top of each other and transporting them back to their  respective sides. However, a task such as stacking cones is more difficult than it seems. “I have tipped the stack over several times, and it’s one of the most disappointing things that can happen to you,” says Vianna. The sophomore, who has been on the team for two years, is the primary driver on the team and plays a significant role in making sure the robot does not malfunction during the rounds. Despite the setbacks Team X faced, they continue to make the minuscule changes required to make their robot flawless.

 

The whole team is very fond of their robot: they had even given it a very human-like name. “Alexandria is like robot 2.0,” Vianna says. “The first version was named Alex. It’s kind of like tradition—every time we rebuild and improve upon the robot, we slightly change the name so that it’s still the same robot but better.”

 

Even though the robots are tested multiple times, overlooking the smallest part can result in a major setback. “You want to take the time to build it right, because taking things apart is a lot more trouble than just doing it slowly and correctly the first time,” says Vianna. Her instincts tell her to rush through the building process, but she knows that going slowly will be beneficial in the long run, especially in the coding process. Coding is an essential part of the art of robotics as it is the backbone of the robot’s mobility and efficiency. The robot’s code has to be perfect, down to the last character—any error would be detrimental to their robot’s performance.

 

Occasionally, older members are more reluctant to accept new ideas about the design of the robot. “Sometimes we get trapped in a mindset,” says Jonathan. “Experienced members have seen so many of the same kind of robots, and they are not open to new ideas.” That is when new members can help out: “The new members bring fresh ideas, where the experienced members help improve on [them].”

 

With every day checked off on the calendar, the margin of error continues to grow smaller. The robot stops turning the extra five degrees and nails each and every motion without fail. The intricate contraption begins to do its work, adhering to its instructions with laser-like precision, unfaltering no matter the amount of turns. “When the robot does well, it’s just a testament to all our hard work and effort we put into it,” says Anna Spence, another member of the X team who is in charge of building, notebooking and scouting. After weeks of tedious corrections and trials, the team is finally ready to compete.

 

***

 

In the multipurpose room, the sound of shoes squeaking echoes as students shuffle from table to table, fingers working dexterously on wires and controllers as robots maneuver around the mock arena with methodical pace and precision. It is competition day, and all the teams anxiously await their turn to put their robots to the test.

 

The sounds of motors whirring and friendly chatter fill the air as Team X, dressed in formal attire displaying their Beckman pride with blue hats, test their robots in the center of the gym. In this room, the students prepare their robots before they venture over to the gym to compete. Each team has their own table with wires, gears and an assortment of snacks spilled across it. Propped up on the table is a poster board for each robot, outlining the design and building process with bright pictures and elegant text pasted neatly on the boards.

 

Team X’s board is proudly presented on the table. The name, Alexandria, is pasted across the top of the display, and pictures of all the team members of X in different Snapchat filters line the bottom. Team X nervously waits for their turn, adjusting the robot in the arena while glancing at the clock. They are going to compete against Foothill High School and Orchard Hills Middle School, teams well-known in the field. “We have a rivalry with Foothillthey’re really good,” explains Anna. Soon, it is time for Alexandria’s first match. Team X marches towards the gym, hearing the noise of the multipurpose room fade away as they felt the exhilaration of the upcoming round.

 

The battleground is revealed as the doors open.

 

Three arenas are set up on the gym floor, each one filled with multiple cones. Michelle, Vianna and Jonathan place their robot on their respective side of the arena and begin talking quietly amongst one another, all focused on the match. As the teams from Foothill and Orchard Hills put their robots in the arena, the rest of Team X sits on the bleachers on the edge of their seats, closely watching their other teammates prepare for the first match.

 

As the MC begins to announce the match, Jonathan and Vianna grip their controllers tighter, the other teams tense up and the crowd falls silent.

 

Game time.

 

Cone after cone, the robots effortlessly scoop up the bright yellow cylinders from the ground and drop them on the platform on the robot. Alexandria speedily moves around the arena, completing tasks just like it has been programmed to do. Suddenly, the smooth whirring of Team X’s robot stops, and the noise is replaced by a grinding screech. With a violent twist, the once stable axle had snapped along with their confidence. Their robot can no longer perform its intended task.

 

***

 

Back in the multipurpose room, Team X rushes to repair their robot. “The worst thing that could have happened to us, happened,” Anna says. The axle malfunctioning hurt Alexandria’s performance, and Team X has to find a way to fix it. Anna, Vianna, Michelle and Jonathan kneel together, their hands skillfully replacing the axle. Once again, they place the robot in the practice arena to test out the new part. Hands clenched, they stare at the robot, praying for it to work—it would take a miracle to pull through. After what seemed like hours, the robot finally comes to life and runs smoothly. Smiles spread across the teammates’ faces as they throw their hands up in success at solving this problem.

 

Team X is back inside the gym for their second match, tension wrapped around the members after their recent malfunction. Cheers erupt from Anna and the other members of the team as Michelle, Vianna and Jonathan return to the battlefield. The second match begins, and the robots snap into motion. The match starts off the same, each robot moving with accuracy and speed. Team X watches with anxiety, hoping their axle will not fail them again. As the match goes on, Alexandria continues to perform well, completing its tasks perfectly. The match finally ends with a flawless performance from Team X. Michelle, Vianna and Jonathan smile at each other while the other members of Team X rest contently, satisfied with their performance.

 

The match concludes with Team X claiming the most amount of points, making up for the setback in the first match, and they walk away victorious. Regardless of earlier mishaps, Team X returns home with greater aspirations for the rest of the season.

 

***

 

The afternoon sun begins to penetrate the darkness of the empty classroom—gears, wires and cones scattered around the room. The home of Beckman Robotics, filled with trophies and posters from past victories, is now silent. As the students file in and occupy the once-vacant seats, the room erupts in sounds of laughter and greetings, and among the students, Team X laughs with them. For Team X, they cannot help but think back to the competition, a slight bitterness surrounding the performance of their robots. But when the members remind themselves of the progress they made in building the robot, the failures that enabled small successes and the excitement of yet another weekend filled with robots, Team X brims with pride and eagerness for the many more competitions to come.

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