Excellence and growth have quickly become staples of the Decatur Christian School robotics team. The team, nicknamed the DCS MechWarriors, is currently gearing up for a tournament hosted at their campus in Forsyth, Ill. The tournament is a part of the FIRST Tech Challenge, a national program where students build, design, and program robots for competition with other students from grades 7-12.
Competitions for the program occur at local, state, regional, and national levels. The vision of FIRST is to “transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders,” says Dean Kamen, Founder of the program. The program doesn’t require prior experience, just an interest in STEM-related areas.
The competition adjusts the competition every year, meaning teams have to be innovative and willing to learn. The MechWarriors have demonstrated an aptitude for these adjustments, making it to State-level competition multiple times. This year is particularly noteworthy, with the team ranked first in their 20-team league and sixth in the state out of a total of 147 teams.
Every September, the team is notified of the new “game” and requirements that they will follow for the competition, and their new robot build begins. This year, the MechWarriors embraced the FIRST concept of Coopertition, meaning “teams can and should help and cooperate with each other even as they compete.”
“When we started the year, we had a robot that we gave to another team that helped them get started. We have a beta bot, that’s our prototype, so we started with that,” said coach Joe Braun.
The team began the year with the beta bot, but they refined and rebuilt components over time, turning the beta bot into a competition robot. The robots must perform some functions autonomously, while students can perform other functions with controllers. But, according to Junior Sam Hahn, who built many of the components with his twin brother Noah, the autonomous functions tend to score big points in the competition. The twin brothers impacted the team’s success by adding a magnet system that mirrored operations on the robot if one side failed, along with sensors that enabled the robot to course-correct on its own.
During the competition, teams compete against one another in one heat and then work together in the next, adding a unique twist that fosters healthy competition. For example, it is common for teams to share parts or give advice when a robot doesn’t perform properly. Of course each team wants to win, but they learn to do so without sacrificing sportsmanship and attitude.
“The FTC community is very helpful with each other,” said Jonathan Austin, a senior in the program. Austin is the main programmer for the MechWarriors, and hopes to continue his experience with a career in software design. The senior is just one example of students in the program having a blast while learning valuable tech skills that translate into future careers. Tyler Moore, a senior who uses a wheelchair, relishes the robotics program’s opportunity because it is dependent on using his brain to succeed. “I’m disabled, but the other kids don’t treat me any differently,” said Moore.
The program started with few resources, making their current progress even more impressive. The program now owns a 3D printer and a CNC machine, enabling the team to make improvements to the robot in-house. The program’s growth has piqued interest among younger students at the school, with many learning computer programming in junior high. This year, Sara Kovalcik, an eighth-grader who competed in FIRST Lego league (a robotics competition for younger students), moved up to FIRST Tech.
Decatur Christian School is clearly proud of the MechWarriors robotics program and a team that demonstrates that STEM-related excellence is alive and well in Christian education.