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Linda Mah
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Hillside Heads to Robotics Championship

Hillside Is Advancing in the FIRST Tech Challenge

Hillside Middle School Robotics FTC Team 13917 will advance to the FIRST Robotics World Championship in Detroit in April after winning the FIRST Tech Challenge state title in Battle Creek in December.

This year’s challenge was called “Rover Ruckus.” It required team members to build and program a robot that would simulate a land rover on a mission to explore a planet and collect mineral samples.

The Hillside team members were: Annalise Alkema, Nicholas Alkema, Maxwell Johnson, Justin Nguyen, and Sean Willoughby. They were coached by parent Hiep Nguyen, who was assisted by parent mentors Steven Alkema, Jim Johnson, Jodie Johnson, Phuong Nguyen, and Scott Willoughby, and Kalamazoo Central student mentors Emily Nguyen, Daniel Nguyen, and Matthew Nguyen.

“It was a big accomplishment,” said Maxwell Johnson, a sixth grader. “We’ve been working on the robot for so long. It was nice to see our work pay off.”

Their robot was required to descend from a landing module, travel to collection locations, collect and sort samples, travel back to the landing pad and — for extra points — reboard the module.

The robot that the students designed, built and programmed could be no bigger than 18 inches in height, width and length, and was designed to operate in a 12 x 12-foot playing field. The robot had to operate as an autonomous vehicle for the first 30 seconds of the contest and was operated by students for the remaining 90 seconds of competition.

Annalise Alkema said her focus on the team was writing the code that controlled the robot. “I loved it when the code compiled,” which was when the robot actually began responding to the computer code. She’s always been interested in coding and was excited to have a hands-on, real-world opportunity to build her skills.

Justin Nguyen said he loved learning about the problem and figuring out ways to make the robot complete the assigned tasks. “It was cool when it was built and worked successfully.”

Some people think of the FIRST program as a robot-building competition, Hiep Nguyen said. “But, that is not really the intent. The main goal is to develop critical thinking and analytical skills.”

The team built their robot from scratch and learned about design, engineering, and coding through hands-on activities. The group’s presentation boards show the robot as a cardboard model that morphed into a metal frame with cardboard pieces, before taking its final form.

In FIRST Robotics, all teams compete as members of alliances. The Hillside team served as alliance captain and chose alliance teammates #8533 CSPA Miners from Brighton and the #13009 TechnoBot team from Troy.

Nguyen said one of the team’s biggest accomplishments was winning the design award at the state competition. “That takes convincing 30 professional designers and engineers that you built and designed the robot and you know everything about the robot,” he said.

The team began working on building a new robot after the holidays.

“In middle school, there is no cutoff for working on designs,” Hiep Nguyen said. “Every team is constantly looking at how did they do in these games and constantly updating their robots.

“I tell the kids, ‘We’re not inventors. We’re engineers.’ As engineers, we have to improve processes. You don’t go to the boss and say, ‘Let’s shut everything down and that will give you 100 percent improvement.’ That’s a big risk. But, the boss would love to hear you say, ‘This incremental change will give you a 10 to 15 percent improvement.’”

FIRST robotics competitions are designed to inspire students to be science and technology leaders. The organization offers FIRST LEGO League Jr. for grades K-3, FIRST LEGO League for grades 4-5, FIRST Tech Challenge for grades 6-8, and FIRST Robotics Competition for high school students.

All four of the district's comprehensive middle schools will offer a robotics course next year.

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