Engineered for innovation

May 30, 2023, 1:16 p.m. | By Sophia Li | 4 months ago

How the Blair Robot Project made school history at Worlds

Team 449 at Worlds (Image courtesy of Akiva Rosenzweig)

Rush to the convention center at 6 a.m.; compete in tense matches until 8 p.m.; get back to the hotel at 10 p.m.; repeat this for the next four days. Though this busy schedule could be grueling for most, for the members of the Blair Robot Project, it has been rewarding. 

The Blair Robot Project (Team 449) – Blair’s robotics team – was founded in 1999 by Mark Curran, James Distler and a group of students interested in solving complex problems through robot-building. Within the team, there are four subteams: business, programming, electronics and mechanics, each of which is responsible for a variety of tasks from applying for grants to hands-on building. Team 449 combines these skills to design and construct a new robot for every competition season. They dubbed this year’s robot “Voyager” – and it has brought them their most successful season thus far. 

From Bunnybots to hotshots

The Blair Robot Project doesn’t have any experience requirements, so rookies are encouraged to join and learn the skills necessary for the competition season. Since Fall is Blair’s offseason, leadership takes that time to train new members. From Sept. to Dec., the team prepares a mock competition season by hosting their own competition – Bunnybots. While new members of the leadership team settle into their positions and work on logistics, the rookies gain all the technical skills required for the build season that follows. 

Programming and business subteams member sophomore Matthew Nam started as a rookie in his freshman year, but eventually accumulated the skills necessary to contribute to the team. “I had some great mentors that were seniors last year. They kind of took me by their side,” Nam says. 

Rookies and experienced members alike also learn and gain feedback from adult mentors, including John Davis, the robotics team’s teacher sponsor. The professionals teach concepts such as 3D modeling and soldering using their professional experience in engineering, business and physics to guide the team. 

Team 449 senior president Sean Li emphasizes the importance of passing on knowledge to new members so they can get fully involved. “The team really prioritizes teaching. Our general philosophy is that we want people to leave having gained something, regardless of competition results,” Li says. 

From Jan. to March, Team 449 had nine official weeks of build season before competing in early March. As a FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team, they competed within the FIRST Chesapeake district before qualifying for Worlds. 449 first competed at the Bethesda, MD district event from March 10 to March 12. They swept up 41 points and the Engineering Inspiration award as well as seven others. Two weeks of revisions later, Team 449 earned 49 points at their second district event in Glen Allen, VA. Finally, in the Chesapeake District championship, Blair persevered to snatch an event total of 78 points, placing 16th of 60 teams. 

For all district events combined, Team 449 scored a total of 168 points, which placed them 18th out of 139 Chesapeake teams – just on the cusp of qualifying for the FIRST championship. 

Beating all odds, Team 449 made it to Worlds. Last year, the Blair Robot Project failed to qualify for Worlds by one placement, which was devastating for many team members, particularly the seniors who were competing for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic. “Being able to qualify for Worlds this year, especially after disappointing circumstances last year, was really amazing,” Nam says. “[This year’s district championship] was almost the same situation as last year, except we were on the fortunate side of it,” he says. 

Especially after all the late evenings the team spent tinkering the Voyager afterschool, the team hoped to reap the rewards. “I think that [making Worlds] is a good reward for all the work that everyone on the team has put in, especially after [a post-pandemic year],” Li says. 

Charged up for Worlds

From April 19 to 22, the robotics team had their minds only on the Voyager. During the journey to Houston, TX to compete in the FIRST Championship - Curie Division against 77 other teams, coordination and cooperation proved even more important than before. The team never hesitated to debrief in order to make improvements between matches and 16-hour workdays. It paid off in the end; after playing 10 qualification matches, Blair made the championship semifinals with a record of 7-3-0, the best result of Blair robotics’ 24-year legacy.

However, the team gained a lot more than just the satisfaction of success. While most of the teams that qualified for the FIRST Championship are from the United States, several teams from across the globe traveled thousands of miles to compete, such as those from Taiwan, Brazil and Australia. Both Li and Nam enjoyed meeting the international FRC teams. “For most of the season, we’re limited to interacting with the teams [of the] Chesapeake district. But there’s a very vibrant FRC competition and community from across the world,” Li says. 

Nam viewed Worlds as a learning experience for Team 449. “Being able to see other teams and how they operate is not only great because it’s exciting within the competition, but it’s also exciting because you get to learn about the different teams and how they operate, which is great for us so we can improve next year,” Nam says. 

Coding a community

Although the Worlds championship is over, the Blair Robot Project is far from done. Team 449 hopes to continue their triumphs as the season wraps up and as next season begins with a new leadership team and new rookies. 

From the late nights at Blair to weekend travels, a close relationship between Team 449 members is inevitable. After all, every member shed the blood, sweat and tears necessary to bring forth the Voyager’s seven wins. As the senior members give their bittersweet goodbyes, the junior members inherit the knowledge to carry on Team 449’s legacy, hopeful for even better results in the seasons to come. 

Nam’s favorite part of being a part of the Blair Robot Project is the sense of community. “It’s a really tight-knit family because we spend so much time with each other. I think being able to build that connection with other people has really helped me understand that I love robotics, and I love this team,” Nam says. 

Last updated: May 30, 2023, 10:10 p.m.

Sophia Li. Hey, it's Sophia, SCO's blog editor and fact checker! I love eating hot pot and any other spicy foods. More »

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