BUCKSPORT — There was a nervous energy in the air as the Bucksport High School robotics team, “The Buck’s Wrath,” sat in the basement of the old Brewer Middle School on Saturday morning.
They sat alongside members of the Brewer High School team, all eyes watching a timer count down on the wall in front of them.
The students and their adult mentors were eagerly awaiting the start of the 2018 season, which would begin with a live-streamed broadcast from For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), the governing body of an annual competition. This year, 3,652 teams across 27 countries will be competing.
Each team must build a robot from scratch to compete in the FIRST game, which changes completely every year. In the past, robots have had to throw Frisbees, climb ropes, shoot Wiffle balls and even act as battering rams to keep opposing robots from scoring.
The game tests students’ skills in engineering, programming, strategic thinking and even diplomacy, since teams must form alliances with others to make it through championship competitions.
Unlike many of the other extracurricular activities at Bucksport, some of the robotics students may eventually go professional in this game once they graduate.
“I’m looking into STEM careers in the future,” said Kacey Theobald, a junior who is new to the team and will help program the robot. “I feel like the robotics team will help me gain more knowledge in the area.”
Theobald and the rest of The Buck’s Wrath have a lot to live up to this year. In 2017, the rookie team defied expectations by making it all the way to the world championships in Missouri, where it duked it out with the best 410 teams on the planet.
“We want to repeat, if not build upon our success from last year,” said math teacher and team co-mentor John Boynton IV. “We’re going to come into the season knowing a lot more than we did last year, so we’re hopeful.”
Last year, the team learned by trial and error how to build a robot, how to make alliances and how to fundraise for travel expenses to fly to Missouri. Only three seniors were on the team last year, so there will be plenty of experienced hands returning this season.
“Last year it was my first try doing anything like this,” said Jack Foster, a sophomore who was the team’s sole programmer last year. “There are all sorts of new things I’m going to try out this year.”
One of those things is called computer-assisted design, a software program that will help students visually model a robot design. The software will allow the team to send designs to a computer numerical control (CNC) machine, which will manufacture parts based on the designs and help the team build the robot, Boynton said.
“It’s a big step up from drawing things on the whiteboard, which is where we were last year,” Foster said.
Foster now leads a team of three other programmers, including Theobald, thanks to a surge in interest in the team from other Bucksport students. Boynton said there are 40 students on the team this year, compared to 20 last year.
“We have a whole new set of challenges this year: how to deal with a large group,” Boynton said. “There will be a lot more delegation and focus needed from the kids.”
Besides working on the robot, Boynton said he hopes the new kids will help design team T-shirts and send out thank-you letters to donors, which he had to do all by himself last year.
More kids means more brain power, which The Buck’s Wrath will need above all to conquer this year’s challenge.
“This is going to be really hard,” one student said, after the FIRST introduction video ended.
Called “FIRST Power Up,” this year’s game is retro arcade game-themed. Like in most FIRST games, three separate teams have to work together in an alliance to score more points than the opposing alliance.
This year, the way to earn points is to collect power cubes, which are milk crates wrapped in yellow fabric. Students from each team must guide the robots to haul power cubes and pile them onto switches and scales on the tennis court-sized playing field.
The alliance with more crates on their side of the scale or switch claims ownership of the scale or switch and earns more points per second in the two minute, 30-second round.
The teams also can activate power-ups and have their robot climb up a tower at the end of the round to win more points.
After leafing through the 150-page FIRST handbook, The Buck’s Wrath held a strategy session at Bucksport High School on Monday.
“Our plan right now is to focus on the switch and the climb,” Boynton said after the meeting.
The math teacher explained that the power-ups and the ownership concept make this year’s game a bit more complicated than last year’s.
“Last year it was collect and climb as fast as you can,” the math teacher said. “[This year] it’s a chess match of keeping control of things as long as you can.”
To succeed, the team will have to build completely new mechanisms and adapt quickly to new situations. But The Buck’s Wrath has a knack for that sort of thing.
“We have a lot of people who are good at reacting to the pressure of the moment,” Boynton said. “Thinking on the fly is a strength of the team.”
Still, the team could always use more funding and more mentors, Boynton said.
“I’m a math teacher, Mr. Gross is a contractor, so he knows how to build,” Boynton said, referring to Mike Gross, a co-mentor and an industrial arts teacher at Bucksport High School. “But by no means are we electrical, computer or mechanical engineers. If there are any adults involved in engineering who want to help mentor they’re welcome to contact me.”
Boynton can be reached at his email address, [email protected] The team’s first competition is March 1 at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute.