MSA-East robotics team headed to Houston for world championship competition

Shown is the "build team" of the MSA-East robotics team. The team left Wednesday to compete in the nationals in Houston, Texas.

Having taken first place at the regional competition in New Orleans recently, students from the MSA-East robotics team left Wednesday for Houston, Texas, to compete for the world championship.

“We’re the only team from Louisiana,” said Michael Chan, who said there should be about 200 other teams from around the country at the competition.

The trip is expensive, around $12,000, but with $5,000 contributions from Dow Chemical and Exxon along with fundraising efforts, the team was able to reach its goal. 

Chan said the first week of preparing for the competition is spent “planning and brainstorming an objective. What do we want the robot to do.”

Another issue considered early on is what the robot should look like. Two separate parts of the team, builders and programmers, coordinate to make their concepts reality.

The second and third weeks are spent actually building the robot itself, its drive train, and beginning the programming, Chan said. Once the team comes up with a prototype, members then decide what ideas stayed and which ones they’d keep.

“From there, we finalize the building and fix anything we might find that’s wrong with it,” Chan said. “This year we did have a lot more problems than normal but we were able to make it do what we wanted.”

In the very complicated competition, there are three primary objectives – the scale, the switches and the exchanges.

Todd Bernuchaux, who transferred from MSA-West to participate in the robotics program, said it was “pretty exciting that we won the regional title.”

The strategy was primarily Chan’s concept, to build a robot with a special skill needed for the competition, the exchange portion.

“Exchanges are what we specialize in,” Bernuchaux said, because successful exchanges are rewarded with power-ups of three types – one gives the team control over the switches, another gives the team double points and the other allows the team’s robot to levitate.

The MSA-E team goes for double points if their winning, he said, while their second option is to take control of the switches.

“It was all really fun to learn once we got to competition and figured out what we wanted to do and what to use and how to win the game,” Chan said. “…We stuck to excelling at a simpler task instead of building a robot that’s just okay at all three skills.”

The team selected the exchange function because of its importance to the game’s strategy and because many of the other schools specialize in other functions. In competition, three random teams are grouped together to form a squad to compete against other three-team squads.

Andre Bui said his role is as a programmer and the driver of the robot.

“The programmer’s job is to basically make the robot move,” he said, while the build team’s primary function is to construct the robot, the programmers have to figure out how to make the robot move by programming buttons on the controller to obey commands.

Ninth grader Emma Fulkerson is in her first year on the team and she said she serves as a drive coach so that when the driver is trying to get the boxes out for exchanges, she navigates for him.

“If he is on the wall and can’t see, I tell him which way to go, left or right, to help guide the box in easier,” she said.

Fulkerson said the MSA-East team is almost half females with seven of almost 20 members.

Once the team has made it to Houston Wednesday, they will be given a full day to prepare, which includes working out any kinks they may have in their robot and practice matches against other teams, Chan said.

He continued by saying the second day is dedicated to the qualifying rounds and the third day is for the finals.

School director Jillian Batson said going to the world championship would not have been possible without a lot of help from outside the school.

“I would like to thank all of the St. Gabriel community for all of the support in fundraising, including the parents who helped so that these students would be able to compete in Houston,” she said.

“The parents have been extraordinarily awesome in fundraising efforts,” said Victoria Hogan, one of the teachers who works with the team.