LAND O’ LAKES — If you asked the Pasco Library Robotics Team what the hardest part about building their robot was, they’ll tell you it was the bumpers.
On the first day of the 2014 FIRST Robotics Competition in Orlando, they sheepishly realized they hadn’t read the requirements sheet closely enough and had to rebuild the robot’s padded bumpers on the spot.
“Let’s not speak about the bumpers,” said Miller Bacon, one of the teens who helped build the robot.
“It was an unspeakable horror,” added Matthew Pease.
Fortunately, other teams dropped what they were doing to step in and help.
“It’s competitive but other teams will help you out, said Joel Croteau, an AmeriCorps VISTA Member for FIRST, “for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” Croteau mentored the local robotics team.
The “Edgar Allan Ohms,” as the team calls themselves, started last December as a robotics club through the Pasco County Library System. On Jan. 4, they received their instructions and robot starter kit, essentially the motor and chassis, and had just six weeks to build, wire and program it to launch an exercise ball into the air before having to bag and tag it with a security seal to prevent further modifications.
Joining the likes of Google, Apple and Mattel, the 10 Pasco teenagers met every Saturday for six weeks to build the robot from scratch in a two-car garage owned by Croteau’s parents. They then competed in a sport-like competition on a basketball-sized court to hoist the exercise ball through a hoop, competing and working with other teams.
Between meetings at the Land O’ Lakes Library, the garage and in TampaTechnik’s machine shop, the group spent 12 or more hours weekly working on their robot for the 2014 FIRST Robotics Competition in a new robotics game called “Aerial Assist.”
“It’s real world application,” said Croteau, who was involved in robotics competitions before working for FIRST. “All the stuff you’ve been learning in school leads up to this.”
Last month, the Edgar Allan Ohms traveled to Orlando to compete in their first regional FIRST competition. They placed 43rd out of 62 teams. Croteau said they beat out veteran teams and got hands-on experience that will help them improve next season’s robot.
More important than a win, Croteau said, is that students are given an opportunity to dabble in engineering before they’ve graduated high school. While an expensive endeavor that requires scholarships, grants and fundraising to participate, FIRST provides teams computer-aided design software that many students don’t get to touch until college.
“FIRST shows that engineering, math, science and technology isn’t boring” Croteau said. “And libraries were for nerds who read books and played Runescape for hours on the computer, at least that’s what I did, and now the library has a robotics team. It’s breaking the stereotypes. The library is for everyone.”
On April 22, the team was invited to the county commission meeting and given a resolution that made them officially recognized by Pasco County, which will help them get more funding and support next year. The team has already started fundraising and has a three-year reoccurring NASA grant they can use for next season.
This year’s robot cost $9,600 to make, between registration fees, parts, travel, food and miscellaneous expenses. Aside from the NASA grant and team fundraising, they got a FIRST Rookie Team Grant, $500 from the Friends of the Pasco Library System, a county grant for STEM education, and donations, both financial and in-kind, from local business owners.
The team is the first FIRST Robotics Competition team from a public library, giving them the opportunity to promote STEM education on a nationwide scale and show other libraries in Florida and across the country how an FRC program can be established at a library.
“This is what libraries need to do,” said team member Hernando Torrealba.
This summer, the students plan to run a free robotics program to teach students the basics of engineering and science and recruit members to the team.