In January, the annual FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition season began, with 3,300 teams from 32 countries competing. This year’s challenge is to build a robot to retrieve and place cones and cubes on pegs and shelves, as well as parking robots on “charging stations” on a playing field.
Since January, the Cherokee and Cobb County high school students, who make up the Firestorm Robotics team, based in Cherokee Makerspace in Acworth, have been working on strategizing, sketching ideas and creating designs and prototypes for their robot.
Teams have about two months to prepare for competitions, which end in April. Firestorm Robotics team members include Kennesaw State University dual-enrollment students Maura Zaccagnino, Elijah Wells and Tyler Clarke, Etowah High sophomore Alexis Cua, Marietta High sophomore Beatrix Bosak, junior Everette Slade (home-schooler), Chattahoochee Tech dual-enrollment student Alexander Bouchard, as well as middle schoolers who have shown an interest in the program.
During the competition season, team members put in long hours. Each team member is assigned a subteam and role, so every part of the robot is worked on. However, Firestorm is a year-round team, and, outside of competition season, students learn and expand their skills on platforms such as OnShape CAD, MasterCAM, VCarve Pro and Lightburn. They also are trained to use the equipment in their shop (Cherokee Makerspace — also a center of innovation for community makers of all ages), which includes a manual mill and lathe, CNC router, CNC plasma table, 3D printers, laser cutters and various power tools.
“I have grown and learned so much in my time on the team. Robotics increased my knowledge of all the different aspects of STEM,” Zaccagnino said. “When I first joined the team (two years ago), I was the shy girl who barely talked. We went to a competition, and I watched on the side as my brother and other teammates drove the robot and qualified for state championships. Being at a competition inspired me.”
The current team designed and built their first robot during the offseason, for the Georgia Robotics Invitation Tournament and Showcase. At this event, the game was to design a robot to quickly pick up tennis balls, aim and shoot them at a goal 15 feet away. At the competition, the game lasted approximately two minutes, with the first 15 seconds being devoted to autonomous operation. Then, the team took control to drive the robot. During the last 30 seconds, the robot had to climb monkey bars. The team named the robot Amaurable, as a tribute to Zaccagnino, one of the lead designers.
“This was the first robot we designed and built. A year ago, we didn’t know much about building a robot. Now, we are the drivers, too! This was an amazing experience for both of us. It’s hard to imagine how far we’ve come,” Zaccagnino and Cua said.
Cua joined the team two years ago as a freshman, although she had been introduced to the team in sixth grade. Her dad, Alexander, is one of the creators of Firestorm Robotics. And, her brother was on the team before graduating from Etowah High. Alexander is a mentor as well, and, this year, the Firestorm Robotics lead mentors are Christie Clarke and Terri Talton. Zaccagnino and Cua recognize the importance of increasing the number of women in STEM fields, and they hope to inspire other girls to become involved in robotics and engineering.
FIRST is a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators, and the Firestorm Robotics team helps drive that mission by educating students on STEM opportunities. Prior to joining the team, Zaccagnino and Cua were unsure of what they wanted to pursue in college. Now, Zaccagnino said she and her teammates want to pursue careers in engineering.
“I used to want to be a physical therapist. But, after the build on Amaurable, I decided I wanted to be in the engineering field, too, specifically biomechanical,” Cua said. “I love this team. I have made lifelong friends and will have lasting memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
The team competes in the Peachtree (PCH) District, which encompasses Georgia and South Carolina. The events can change yearly, and this year, there are a few venues for competitions. This month, district qualifiers are in Albany, Dalton, Gwinnett, Carrollton and Macon. In April, the PCH State Championship will be held at the LakePoint Sports complex in Emerson, and the FIRST Worlds Championship will be in Houston and Detroit.