One of a kind
Twin Bridges high school robotics team finds regional success
TWIN BRIDGES—Last year, the Twin Bridges robotics team got off to a rocky start: its handful of students were teaching themselves to write computer codes, using information they learned in an eighth-grade class that gave some basic help with computer programming.
There were only enough students to field a single team, and much of the first year of competition was spent balancing opinions and personalities and trying to work out the kinks of being a non-funded program.
“And there were a lot of kinks,” laughs sophomore Trista Redfield, one of the team’s original members. This year, Redfield says, things have gotten off to a smoother start.
This year, Twin Bridges has enough participants to create two teams of seven, not including a middle school program. They’re the only robotics team in the surrounding area; their closest competitors are teams from Butte and Bozeman, and competitions routinely include teams from around Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah.
They might be a small team, and they might be new, but the two crews—dubbed “Metalheads,” and “Identity Crisis”(chosen because members couldn’t decide upon a name)—have already found success in their tenure in Twin Bridges, with a trip to the state and regional competition looming and hopes high to reach the Super Regional competition, facing off against teams from the entire western half of the United States.
The members of team Metalheads and team Identity Crisis shared a crash course in robotics, what a competition looks like and how Twin Bridges is—literally—building its program from the ground up.
A robotics competition shakes out in a series of “alliance rounds,” Redfield and junior CJ Wayland tell me. Each of those alliance rounds lasts three minutes and comprises three subcategories.
The first section is called the autonomous round and lasts 30 seconds. In that half-minute, a team’s hand-built robot must complete a series of tasks: distinguishing between a cube and sphere object in its playing field, picking up the correct object and moving it into the team’s designated space and then returning itself to a “home base” before the time runs out. It seems easy enough, except for the catch. The members of the team don’t control the robot at all; they can only watch and hope their self-coded program runs the robot the way it’s supposed to.
“It’s pretty stressful,” says Wayland. They demonstrate an autonomous round in their robotics classroom, which Twin Bridges high school designated for them to build and practice on a competition-like arena. The program runs flawlessly, and the robot lifts itself up onto “home base” via a cranelike arm that stretches out from its mars-rover body.
“Why couldn’t you have done it like that in competition?” hollers Wayland. The robot suffered a bit of performance anxiety at the team’s recent competition, but likely would have received full marks if it had performed the way it did at home.
Following the autonomous round is a two-minute “tele-ops” round. Each team is randomly paired with an opponent from another school and this time the robots are controlled by a remote in the hands of the operator. The student must guide the robot through a series of tasks, moving objects and collecting “minerals”—this year’s competitions are space themed, so the blocks and playing arena are modeled after a foreign lunar landscape.
During this second round, the teams compete against one another while trying to avoid penalties, of which there are many: hitting or blocking another team’s robot will lose you points, as will intentionally or unintentionally damaging any part of the arena. Stealing another team’s stash of minerals, though? Perfectly legal.
The final round is another 30 seconds, a chaotic “end game,” Redfield tells me. In it, teams attempt to earn as many last-minute points as possible. This can range from simply hoarding as many mineral blocks as possible to getting your rover loaded onto the “home base,” both significantly complex tasks that the Twin Bridges team is working to program their robots to do.
The qualifying rounds for the state tournament are competed schoolyard-style, Wayland tells me. Teams compete in a bracket, with the final two reigning as winner and runner-up.
Metalheads and Identity Crisis have each competed at two competitions so far this school year, one in Helena and one in Butte. And through those two competitions, both seven-person squads have qualified for the state competition, which will be in Bozeman in early February, hosted by Montana State University’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering.
At their first competition in Helena, the members of Identity Crisis claimed the second overall spot, enough to seal their trip to Bozeman. The Metalheads won the Think Award at that competition, given for ingenuity of design, problem solving and style.
Then, earlier this month in Butte, the Metalheads punched their own ticket by scoring high enough in the alliance rounds to advance straight to the state competition. Identity Crisis won the Control Award, which goes to the team with the best engineering handbook, outlining the ways their robot works and the processes they use to code and control it.
Once they get to Bozeman, however, moving forward gets even more challenging. To get to the Super Regional competition in Detroit, teams must either win first place at their state championship or win the Inspire Award.
The Inspire Award is given for a team’s outreach in their own community, their sportsmanship in competition and their leadership and guidance. Twin Bridges has their eyes set on winning the Inspire Award in Bozeman, and they deserve it: they helped with Twin Bridges’ recent community Christmas dinner and are involved in various community service events around the area.
In the meantime, they’ll continue meeting every day at lunch and two days each week after school. It’s a challenging balance, says coach Jennifer Elser.
“This is only the second year we’ve even had a program, so they’ve had to teach themselves most of the coding with very little instruction,” says Elser. “We’ve got 14 kids and most of them are also athletes. So, the only time we can get all of them is at lunch.”
They’re also mentored by another team, an established group in New Jersey that used to be coached by Twin Bridges’ co-coach Dr. Nancy Mates. The two teams have routine video chats and share emails and updates collaborating on problems they’ve run into or learning something new.
With a lot more programming and training to do before their state competition, the Metalheads and Identity Crisis will get right back to work after their winter break in an attempt to go farther than any Montana robotics team ever has. Teams from Sun River and Ronan have gone as far as the Super Regional competition in recent years, and Twin Bridges hopes to add its name to that very short list.