Plaquemine High’s robotics team on the rise -- up from No. 44 last year to 25 in 2018 competition

Back row, standing, from left to right: Haylee Brown (lead programmer), Nyan Hall (backup driver), Austin Daigle, Chase Norwood, Michael Songy (lead designer), Javion Johnson, Todd Joffrion (team captain) Front row, kneeling, from left to right: Blaine Smith, Hunter Hutchins (lead driver), Skyler Dozier (build lead), Grant Orcino.(Photo courtesy of Dow Chemical Co.)

The robotics team of Plaquemine High School recently returned from a competition in New Orleans, having finished in the middle of a pack of 55 teams.

While finishing 25th may not seem like an impressive score, the 3-year-old team’s meteoric rise is. 

"It's exciting to see the team move up in rankings so drastically. This year our rank is 25,” said Patrick Schmit, assistant robotics coach. “Our first year, in 2016, we were 51, and last year we were 44. That's quite a jump.” 

Lynn Schmit, was pleased with the outcome too. “We did fantastic. I’m excited,” she said. “We jumped up to 25 this year. That’s huge…The fact that we were able to do so well with such a new team – it was fantastic.”

She also teaches engineering, robotics and computer science teacher at the school. “We can’t wait until next year. There’s a lot we’re hoping to do between now and then.”

Newton Hutchens is the robot’s main “driver.” He explained the concept of the competition.

“We have six weeks to build the robot,” Hutchens said. He called those weeks “the building season.” It is followed by the “off season.” “We have to back up the robot (to prevent the loss of any programming) and then we can’t handle it again until the competition.”

“So we have to squeeze in the preparation in that six weeks to test, have practice matches,” Hutchens said. “Once we finally get to the competition, we’re finally able to do what we need to the robot to make it ready to compete.”

The games themselves involve three teams randomly chosen to compete together to accomplish a variety of tasks. 

“It’s really a domination game,” Hutchens said. “You have two switches and a scale. Your main objective is to take yellow cubes (about one square foot in size), pick them up and put them on a switch or put them through an exchange point to get a power-up.” 

The blocks can also be placed on a counter-balanced scale and team with the heaviest load can earn extra points. Each block placed on a switch earns points and not only does putting them through exchange points earn points, but three power-ups also provide extra power, Hutchens said.

“Once you get those three power-ups, you can get things like boosts or double points,” he said. “The alliance (team of three) with the most points wins. “You have two other teams that are on you side and between the three, we have to come up with a strategy, a game plan, to beat the other team.”

Lynn Schmit said this year’s competition was held at the Ponchartrain Center. “It’s intense,” she said of the competition. .”It’s 80 matches – each team has nine. All day long, you’re continuing to keep your robot moving." 

And keeping your robot together and operational. “It’s full contact at some points, so parts fall off,” Schmit said. “And it’s not just motors and gears. It’s got complicated electronics so things can go wrong and they can go wrong in a hurry.” 

She said building the robots, the cooperation between the teams at the competition and the competition itself is a unique educational experience. 

“I think it teaches them valuable life skills because it teaches you how to work with someone you’ve never worked with and come up with a strategy,” Schmit said, plus the experience teaches them a great deal about electronics and engineering.

“There’s very little teacher involvement,” she continued. “The students come up with a design. I just help them get there.

The program is sponsored at the local level by companies like Dow and Fluor, Schmit said. “It really shows that the investment industry and the community is starting to pay off.”

The robotics competition program is the brainchild of the inventor of the Segway, Dean Kamen, and co-founder Dr. Woodie Flowers, and is conducted through an organization the two formed, FIRST, an anagram for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. 

“FIRST is more than just robots,” Kamen said. “The robots are a vehicle for students to learn important life skills.”

“Kids often come in not knowing what to expect – of the program nor themselves,” he continued. “They leave, even after the first season, with a vision, with confidence and with a sense that they can create their own future.”

FIRST seems to have achieved its goals with the Plaquemine High team. 

"The most challenging part of FRC (First Robotics Competition) robotics was teamwork,” said lead builder Skyler Dozier said about the building season. “I had to work with people who have different levels of skill and had to work close with the electronics team, designer, programmer and drive team."

Each team member had their own reasons for getting involved in the program. 

"I had never been part of a team before and this was a perfect opportunity to participate in a competition that wasn't sports,” said Haylee Brown, lead programmer, about why she was interested in joining the robotics team. 

"I've always liked to draw in my spare time, so this was a chance to show my skills,” Michael Songy, designer, said. 

Other team members talked about why they enjoyed the competition. 

"I enjoyed getting to meet other people and experience different things, like seeing how other teams designed their robot to do similar tasks, said Nylan Hall about the competition. "The most difficult thing was working with different teams to come up with different strategies each match." 

"It was awesome being able to drive the robot during competition, to finally use this thing we spend some much time building and testing,” Hutchens said.

Javion Johnson, build team member, said that troubleshooting was the most difficult part, since some errors can be caused by tiny mistakes in the robot or wiring.  

Team captain Todd Joffrion described the progress he believed the team has made since its first year. 

"This year our team was more knowledgeable than in the past,” Joffrion said. “We were able to build the robot to actually do more than just drive around, including scoop and conveyor belt assemblies."