CAMAS — Participants and organizers of the FIRST Robotics Competition like to refer to the program as the “Varsity Sport of the Mind.’’
“An amazing thing about FIRST is that every single one of our kids is going to get a chance to go pro, unlike other sports,’’ said Bruce Whitefield, mentor of Team 2471 “Team Mean Machine,’’ a Robotics Team made up of students from the Camas, Washougal and Hockinson areas. “Only 0-1 percent of football and basketball players will go pro.’’
Team 2471 is about to enter its 10th year of FIRST Robotics Competition. Whitefield said this year’s team could have as many as 60 members, up from the five members that made up the first team in 2008. And, as Whitefield touts, many of Team 2471’s former members used their experience in FIRST Robotics to chart a career course.
One example of that is Whitefield’s own son, Corwin, Team 2471’s captain in its first year. Corwin who went on to graduate from the University of Washington as a member of the Class of 2013 and now works at Hewlett Packard here in Clark County in their 3D printing program.
“I was part of many groups and competitions in high school, but FIRST is the one I credit with setting me firmly on the path to being an engineer,’’ Corwin Whitefield said. “Before FIRST, I thought I might like being an engineer — after, I knew, and the passion and skills I gained as a FIRST student are still serving me well as I begin my career.’’
Henry Midles succeeded Whitefield as a captain of Team 2471. This spring, Midles will graduate from Oregon State University and will continue with an internship at Sharp Electronics here in Clark County.
“FIRST has given me a direction to take my passion for engineering, it was the perfect outlet for my creativity,’’ Midles said. “In addition to that, the style of the competitions and the build season showed me that I can be a leader as well as giving me knowledge in engineering that I would not have had anywhere else in the classroom.’’
The FIRST Program was created “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Private and corporate sponsorships supplement the school-based STEM efforts. Mentors donate their time and expertise to train the next generation of engineering and business leaders and students experience all the excitement and challenges of running a small high-tech company.
“It’s a STEM education type of program,’’ Bruce Whitefield said. “The whole idea is to create this competition, but it’s really all about learning, education and teamwork. It was started by Dean Kamen, a well-known inventor. He likes to say the best way to invention is to create inventors.’’
Whiteside said there are now about 7,000 teams worldwide. In Clark County, Team Mean Machine has competed alongside the Battle Ground 4-H Cloverbots, the Skyview Stormbots, the Evergreen School District Green Wrenches and a team has also been created in Ridgefield.
Most of the members of Team Mean Machine attend either Camas, Hockinson or Washougal high schools, although some are home schooled. The team works out of a 1,500-square-foot repurposed wood shop at Liberty Middle School in Camas.
While the team is affiliated with Camas High School as an after hours club, it is operated by volunteers and funded by private sponsors. The program has an annual budget of between $40,000-50,000. Each major competition costs $5,000 and the team plans for two each season and then if it qualifies for the world championships in Houston, TX in the spring, that is an additional expense. Each student pays a $200 fee, but Whitefield said no students have been turned away because sponsors have stepped up with need-based scholarships.
U.S. Digital, Thomas & Betts and Boeing are among Team 2471’s largest corporate sponsors.
“These companies help sponsor the program because the program is trying to develop the type of people they want to hire in their workforce,’’ said Whitefield, who works for Linear Technology, another of Team 2471’s sponsors. “In general, companies like that want to sponsor and support science and technology education.’’
The competition season begins in January with the regional kickoff. The teams all find out at once via a regional webcast what their new task will be.
“The teams immediately start their brainstorming; it’s a pretty exciting morning,’’ Whitefield said. “Then, they have six weeks to build the robot and get it ready for competition. They say those six weeks are the hardest fun you will ever have.’’
The game for the annual competition changes from year-to-year.
“This past year, there was a medieval theme,’’ said Whitefield, one of about a dozen mentors who volunteer with Team Mean Machine. “It was a giant game of Capture the Flag with robots. They had to storm the castle, basically, with their robots and shoot boulders at it. The robots are not small. They are about 120 pounds.’’
The 2016 season consisted of the Pacific Northwest District event in Wilsonville, OR, where Team 2471 was a finalist and also won Excellence in Engineering Award. The team then claimed a coveted Chairman’s Award at the Pacific Northwest CAIS District event before becoming a quarterfinalist at the Pacific Northwest District Championship event.
Team 2471 advanced to the World Championships for the sixth straight year in 2016. At worlds, Team 2471 was a division quarterfinalist and also won the Innovation in Control Award.
In between district, regional and the world events, Team 2471 participates in area events in Clark County and also performs other outreach work.
“We typically meet two evenings a week a week during the non-competition season,’’ Whitefield said. “In that six-week period and into the competitions, our schedule kicks into weekends and three days a week. I always ask them,’what are you giving up for build season? You can’t give up family and you can’t give up school. If you’re serious about this, you’re giving up video games for sure if you’re in robotics and committed during the competition season.’’
Members of Team 2471 each receive assigned tasks and roles on the team.
“It’s basically like running a small, high-tech company themselves,’’ Whitefield said.
Nick Murray is a senior team member from Camas High School. Murray has served as the president and scout leader on the team.
“The team has taught me leadership, business management, grant writing, time management, data collection and analysis, working under pressure, etc.,’’ Murray said. “These skills are my foundation to moving to higher education, to starting my own business, to pursue my career, and my life goals. In 50 years when I look back on these days, I shall not remember high school but I shall remember Team Mean Machine.
“It has opened the door for me to the business world, and built my skills in grant writing for my pursuit into marine biology,’’ Murray said. “It has also taught me the value of hands in learning, and the imperative need to work for something that you enjoy, so that I never have to work a day in my life.’’
Morgan Gibb is a sophomore member of the team and is a home-schooled student who lives in Vancouver. She has been involved with the FIRST Program since the fourth grade and is in her second year as a member of Team 2471.
“I’ve been living my whole life to be officially on the team,’’ Gibb said. “My first year on Team Mean Machine, I loved it. I recommend it for everyone. It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me. I’ve loved robotics ever since I knew what it was.’’
Gibb said she enjoyed being a part of the design team.
“I really loved designing and working with the machines,’’ she said. “I was part of the mechanical side of things, working on the drive train with our team captain Lucas Bell. I’m planning to, after high school, get my degree in mechanical engineering and robotics. I want to go into those fields and come back to Mean Machine, or another robotics team, and mentor them or maybe start up my own team. It’s truly a great opportunity.’’
After serving as team captain for Team Mean Machine, Bell graduated from Camas High School last year after also completing the Running Start Program at Clark Community College. He is now at Western Washington University in Bellingham.
“I feel like there’s no better program in the world to offer students who are interested in the STEM field,’’ Bell said. “I feel like I achieved things I never thought were possible.’’
Through his experience with the FIRST Robotics Program,’’ Fields was introduced to a Tech Prep Internship Program at Boeing as well as a mini scholarship program for machine technology at Portland Community College. After he completes his degree at Western Washington, he plans to work for Boeing.
“I owe pretty much my entire future as well as all of my successes in the last four years to FIRST Robotics,’’ Bell said. “It introduces you to amazing programs you didn’t even know exist. Even if I knew they existed, without FIRST Robotics, I wouldn’t have had the skills required to fulfill those goals.’’
Money well spent
Thanks in large part to the commitment of Owner and Founder David Madore, US Digital has long been a major sponsor of Team Mean Machine.
“The big picture is just simply getting kids bit by the bug,’’ Madore said. “They have an opportunity I never had when I was a kid. I saw my first spark when I was about 5 years old and I was inspired. I experimented, using all my lunch money, paper route money, raking leaves and mowing lawns money on Army surplus electronics and tools and I loved it.
“I didn’t know anybody else who did what I did,’’ Madore said. “Here, you have like-minded kids who get together and have all these resources at their disposal and a mentor and a challenge to put practical application to technology. It’s like putting a booster rocket into space.’’