It’s 6 pm on a Wednesday at the Oyster River High School (ORHS) auditorium. Inside, students type intensely on computers while tinkering with what seems to be a behemoth of a machine. While some members attend meetings with their teams, others are talking and laughing with each other as they drill wooden planks together— just another typical robotics meeting.
When you hear robotics, you might associate it with building Legos and programming them to move and use motors, like in middle school. High school robotics, however, is very different in that each robot has intricate parts that require multiple people to work together. It’s also not just about building robots. Students can develop many STEM-based career pathways—which include electrical work, mechanical engineering, and programming— and can build on skills of working and communicating as a team.
The ORHS team, Overdrive, is not just one big team working on the same thing. “We split into sub-teams: mechanical, electrical, business, strategy, and programming, and there’s leaders of those sub-teams themselves. I basically align all the sub-teams together, and I work with all the sub-team leaders to make sure their sub-team is meeting the goals they need to build a successful robot,” says Saketh Kantepudi (‘24), the leader of the robotics team. He believes that each team is vital to the others and explains that the robot is a “vertically integrated system,” where if one team fails, the others will fail as well.
In addition, a mentor, someone who usually has more experience in the robotics field, is assigned to each sub-team. For example, students might not be familiar with things like new motors or LIDAR, a radar system that tracks the positioning of the robot through laser. This then requires mentors to step in.
“What we want to do is have the students learn as much as they can about the things that they will need to be able to go ahead and design the robot. So, if we must go pick up a ball and throw a ball into a hoop somewhere as part of the game, how we do that is we need to learn about projectiles. That’s a physics thing, and not all the students have had physics. The math is parabolas. If you had Algebra 2, you could figure that one out,” says Sue Hay, the electrical team mentor.
Once the team familiarizes themselves with the robot and its components, it’s time for competition. From January to March, the team enters the “build season.” The corporation First® releases a challenge for teams around the world to build their robots, according to the challenge. Then, through March, teams will then play each other at regional, state, and international levels. The challenge is played on a basketball-sized court, where two teams of three robots compete against each other to accumulate the most points. The challenge could be anything; for example, last year, the challenge featured balls you would have to put in baskets and a monkey bar you could climb to get points.
For the past couple of years, the Overdrive team has gotten used to this competition style. “[Last year], they learned a lot about how First is actually run, how the games are run, how to make friends with the other teams and what’s important on the field,” said Hay.
This year, however, the group has made a goal. Anika Pant (‘25), a member of the programming team on Overdrive, says that the team hopes to make it to the Worlds, the international competition level of First.
“I think that’d be an incredible thing if we’re able to [make it to Worlds], especially being that this is basically our second year as a team…Last year was our test year. Learn from last year, apply what we know this year, add more stuff, and yeah, be better,” she said.
While getting to Worlds is a great feat any team can achieve, the skills that you gain along the way are also a big part of robotics. “The FRC (First® Robotics Competition) team is really where you’ll get the widest scope and the most in-depth scope of any subject, such as mechanical engineering, physics, programming, and business,” says Kantepudi.
Kantepudi explained how during the 2021-22 season, the programming team had great success in their work. “Our programming team, just from one year of being on the team, learned everything they need to get a five on the AP Computer Science exam, by learning Java. They didn’t do any extra work. Just by programming the robot.”
Pant, who has been doing robotics since she was 7, kept with robotics for its atmosphere. “I stuck with it because it’s such a fun thing, especially because you meet such cool people and it’s an incredibly nice peer group. Everybody has similar values in the sense that it allows you to get with people who think similarly,” she says.
Chris Hawley (‘24), the leader of the design team, agrees with Pant’s assessment. “You don’t have to come here just to learn how to program. You can learn how to work with others, you can learn how to be a leader, you can learn how to do all these things that you can’t really get from anywhere else.”