Up to the (FIRST Tech) Challenge

The students who participate on Ellis’ FIRST Tech Challenge team have been busy, to say the least. For months they’ve been working away in the lab, building their own robot, programming code, and figuring out just how their new creation will operate. Now, they’re setting their sights on the event they’ve been waiting for and striving toward all year: their very first competition, which will also mark The Ellis School’s debut as a FIRST Tech Challenge contender.
FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) is a program through which teams of students use kits to design, build, and code robots. The teams must operate their robots to carry out various tasks in the games they will be competing in, which will score them points. The theme of this year’s competition is Freight Frenzy, so the robots will have to complete mission objectives such as navigating across barriers, retrieving cargo, and delivering it to specific locations on the playing field, all within a given time frame. For part of the competition, the Ellis team will be randomly partnered with another team to form an alliance, facing off in a head-to-head challenge against another two-team alliance. It’s not only a battle of robotics know-how, but of problem-solving, communication, and teamwork.

FTC is a fairly new extracurricular activity at Ellis, with the 2020–2021 school year being its rookie season, and the team was chartered in response to a rapidly growing interest in robotics in the Middle School. The FIRST LEGO League (FLL), a sister program of FTC that caters to younger students, was overflowing with middle schoolers, and eighth graders who were graduating from the activity once they moved to the Upper School wanted to further what they had learned. Thus, FLL became a solely fifth and sixth grade team, and the Ellis FTC team, for students in grades 7–12, was created. 

"Especially for the seventh and eighth graders, FTC is an excellent opportunity to advance their skills and experience in the robotics field,” says Upper School Science Teacher Sam Rauhala, who currently serves as the FTC coach and coached the FLL team for five years. "When the FLL team was open to grades 5–8, the difference between a fifth grader, who was most likely trying something totally new to them, and an eighth grader, who was more invested and wanted a greater challenge, was pronounced. Now, FLL can be more of an introduction to robotics for grades 5 and 6, and the seventh and eighth graders have room to grow within the FTC team and get to work alongside older, more experienced students who can provide mentorship and guidance.”

FTC not only provides a space where its younger participants can test drive what it’s like to be an Upper School technology student—working with more advanced tools and strengthening their time management savvy, among other responsibilities—but it also empowers them to expand and evolve their problem-solving methods. FTC is all about being able to quickly overcome challenges on the fly. Looking to their older teammates as role models, the seventh and eighth graders learn to transition from time-intensive iteration to a more strategic thought process, stepping back from obstacles to brainstorm smarter or faster solutions. As the students gear up for their competition next month, their sharpened skills and can-do attitudes are sure to take them far.

"I’ve watched the team go from 'we have something that kind of looks like a robot’ to 'we have a robot that moves’ to 'we have a robot that moves AND has an arm that moves’ to 'we have a robot with a broken shoulder, but we can fix it!’,” says Mr. Rauhala with a laugh. "They take their victories and defeats as they come, but progress is happening at all stages. It’s really satisfying and exciting for them, and for me to see as their teacher.”
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