This article first appeared in the summer 2017 Harker Magazine.
When Harker’s competitive robotics program was just starting in 2003, it needed help.
“From an engineering standpoint, the team was highly unpredictable and unreliable,” said Eric Nelson, robotics advisor. “Their creations tended not to function most of the time. Breaking down, losing parts and catching fire were the norm. The outcome was not surprising given that they resisted working as a unit.”
But since then, thanks to strong mentors and program changes, the team has steadily matured, and 2016-17 was its best competitive season yet.
The Robotics Club was founded by a student in the 2001-02 school year. Nelson, also a physics teacher and chair of the upper school’s computer science department, joined Harker and became club advisor in 2003-04, and has overseen the steady growth of the program.
In fall 2004, team captain Alex Segal ’05 both pulled the group together and had a clear design goal, said Nelson. While the robot that year had reliability issues, it had a competitive design and the team won the Sacramento regional competition and went on to Atlanta for the national event. The team held its own until mid-afternoon on the first day of the event, then slid behind for the remainder of the competition.
“The team culture was the biggest obstacle I had to overcome,” said Nelson. “That type of rebellious ‘me-first’ behavior is now the excep on rather than the norm, and it has made a big difference in the team performance.”
Jacqueline Rousseau ’07 was there early in the program’s development, too. She was on the robotics team for four years, starting in 2003-04. After college, she spent several years as a trader in foreign exchange options at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York, but left recently to get a master’s in education from Harvard’s Teacher Education Program and plans to become a high school physics teacher after graduating next year. She remembers her time on the robotics team with great fondness.
“My freshman year was the team’s second year,” Rousseau said. “The first couple of years, we were just a group of students trying to figure out what we were doing, but by the time I left we had some semblance of organization. We definitely reinvented the wheel multiple times before we started learning how to pass on knowledge through the years.”
As a junior, Rousseau was programming subteam lead; her senior year she was vice president of the club. “What I actually did was a bit of everything!” she said. “My focus for the first three years was on electronics (wiring the robot) and programming (writing code and testing), and then, in senior year, managing all of the separate processes and organizing the timing of the project so we could ship on time.”
Out of Chaos, Order
For the first five years, Nelson built up the program, recruiting parents for supervision, mentoring and some technical oversight. “I also hooked a few faculty into watching the students so I could have a day off once in awhile. I am still very appreciative of [lower school science teacher] Giresh Ghooray for his help,” he said. “The one consistent aspect that I maintained was that the students had to do the design and engineering,” said Nelson. “This restriction meant that the students became very knowledgeable about the systems they developed and the tools they used, but those systems tended to look, and work, like they were made by students. They lost a lot of games.”
But the path to success began to open up in 2008. “The move into Nichols Hall [from a regular-sized classroom] was a huge game changer,” said Nelson. “We now had the space for real tools, not just hand drills and hacksaws, as well as room for ongoing projects. The new facilities and persistent structure helped a great deal in providing consistent oversight and continuity.”
By 2012, Nelson’s nine years of hard work had begun to pay off, but refinements were necessary to bring the program into the winner’s circle with consistency. “While the team’s internal performance did improve, in the sense that things stopped catching fire and losing parts,” said Nelson, “their competition performance did not. Their robots were still designed and constructed by students who only had part-time guidance for the design and engineering.”
Five years later, in 2017, the team lit up the scoreboard, making school history in March when, for the first time, it finished in the top eight of the seeding rounds of the Central Valley Regional FIRST Robotics Competition. The team ranked seventh out of 47 entries at the end of the first round, giving Harker the choice of alliance partners for the quarterfinals. During the quarterfinals, Harker’s alliance had the highest score for the entire tournament, moving it on to the semifinals. “Alas,” said Nelson, “we lost our two semifinal games. It was an excellent competition where the students really lived up to their abilities.”
Later that month the team made the semifinals in the Sacramento Regional FIRST Robotics Competition thus, for the first time, making the semifinals in both regionals in which it competes. “Our last two games were too close to call until the final official tally,” noted Nelson. A number of factors helped move the team into position for that winning season. “Over the past five years we have formalized the team structure, created a handbook so we can remember what we do that works and created a purchase tracking and approval system to keep costs under control,” Nelson said. Meanwhile, the club was converted to an official program, an important change to make it eligible for school funding.
In the past – and this season – the team had consistent help about every other week from Brian Oldziewski, Harker’s network administrator, and parent mentors – but that wasn’t quite enough. “We needed someone in the trenches who could work side by side with the students to keep them from diverting from good design ideas and from making bad last-minute decisions,” said Nelson.
Enter Martin Baynes, who has worked at Harker for a few years as a computer science teacher at the upper school and robotics teacher at the middle school. Before taking up teaching, Baynes was a senior manager in electronics and software companies in Silicon Valley for many years. “I am used to trying to be a catalyst for creativity, and a facilitator, priority and milestone clarifier,” he said.
Baynes teaches the robotics course and, Nelson noted, “works with the students in the engineering trenches on a daily – or perhaps hourly is a better word – basis during the build and competition season.” These changes, along with a new officer selection process, on top of the years of refining the program, all contributed to this year’s stellar results. Baynes is insistent the students made the difference. “The leadership by the students in all cases was excellent and the most crucial factor,” he said.
But one of his own contributions was key: During build season Baynes brought a voice of reason to proposed changes in plans, “to stop the over-creative enthusiasm,” he said. This focusing saved enough resources that the team was able to build a second robot for software development, tuning and practice. Baynes brought his expertise to the competition floor, too, “so I could help with debrief and stop them changing the robot prematurely,” he said. “They became a well-oiled operation team in both the pit and on the competition floor; it was most impressive at UC Davis.”
The transition has gone well. “Martin has taken over all the engineering oversight and lab management tasks,” Nelson said. “This is the first year that I did not know what the design was until I watched the robot in action. It was the first year that I did not put in 60- to 80-hour weeks during build, and it was the best year in terms of both internal and external overall performance.”
Along with supervising the build, Baynes’ two new robotics classes will add a fresh dimension to the robotics program as students who pass through them join the program in increasing numbers. Existing classes were already helping the software subteam, said Nelson. “Our computer science courses give those students a strong foundation, which makes a big difference in their coding efforts. The electronics course in the physics subdepartment helps the more electrical engineering-minded students.”
The new courses are robotics hardware and robotics software classes, one taught each semester. Both classes train students from a general principles perspective, not specifically on the competition hardware and software. However, the hardware course does train students in 3-D CAD, which the design team uses to build the robot; and the software course supports the software aspects of the club work. In both courses this year, about 30 percent of the students are in the competitive program.
Andrew Tierno, grade 12, executive president of the 2016-17 robotics team, has been on the team four years. “Ever since I went to the Harker open house as a rising freshman, I knew I wanted to join robotics,” he said. “A lot of what we do here at Harker is theoretical and intellectual, so it’s nice to have a program where we’re actually building things with our own two hands and learning, sometimes painfully, that not everything that should work in theory does work in practice.”
As a freshman, Tierno liked what he saw. “I admired the leadership of then executive president Sarika Bajaj ’14,” he said. “She had a way of maintaining order and championing the opinion of the underdog, all while keeping the environment fun and exciting to return to day after day. It’s that kind of energy that inspired the style of leadership I tried to bring to my presidency. I’m strongly of the opinion that it is the absolutely amazing bunch of students this year that afforded us our successes.”
Tierno agreed the changes noted above had a serious impact on results. One game changer was building that second robot thanks to Baynes’ efficiencies, “which gave us the practice crucial to our successes this year.”
Tierno, who will attend Stanford in the fall, motivated some changes of his own, included moving discussions onto the messaging platform Slack, cleaning out the robotics lab, reworking the robotics handbook and implementing a new scouting system.
All the changes added up to a landmark season. “We’ve found this special blend of strong mentors, effective organization and dedicated students that is critical for success,” said Tierno.
Tierno noted everyone on the roster made an exceptional effort this year. “Albert Xu [grade 12] deserves a special shout out for taking on the task of designing our robot and managing its construction essentially by himself,” he said.
“Christopher Leafstrand [grade 10] was our robot driver. He makes driving seem so easy, whizzing both forwards and in reverse at top speeds yet somehow dodging every single obstacle that comes in his way. On top of all that, he’s also a significant contributor to design and has already come up with a model for a robot to build over the summer.
“Nina Levy [grade 12] acted as our drive coach. Her quick thinking and ability to make snap decisions led us to victory more than once when we thought everything was lost. She has the incredible ability to make everyone stop and listen to her, which is critical in a game where teamwork is key (finals matches are played with two other teams against another three-team alliance),” finished Tierno.
Levy was the team’s 2017 director of public-facing operations, so she managed the drive team of five students but also helped with the build. She, too, has been on the team for four years. She organized drive team meetings and during the match, acted as the driver’s brain, coaching him on what to do, to get a gear (an item to be collected and re-deposited by the robot), to climb or defend, and alerting him on how much time is left and how many gears were in the goal.
“I have learned a multitude of engineering-related skills that have prepared me for college,” noted Levy, who will attend University of California, Davis in the fall. “I think over the years the biggest changes were in communication. When our team communicated with each other and worked together for one common goal, we succeeded both as a team and at competition.”
Levy revels in the community that develops with the team. “Within the team, everyone, each year, always talks about the close friends they have made and the people that they can trust and count on,” she said.
“I think that robotics is a really great opportunity for any high school student interested in STEM fields,” Levy added. “Whether you have previous knowledge about different aspects of robotics or know nothing but are willing to give it a try, the experience is completely worthwhile. I would say Harker Robotics is not just about a club that builds robots but also a community that fosters learning, growth, communication and respect between all the team members and mentors.”
Great Take-Aways for All
Baynes, like all good teachers, enjoys watching the students grow, seeing what they are capable of, and seeing them rewarded for their dedication and hard work in the competition achievements. “I believe if we had gone for a third competition, they could have won,” he said.
The next few years should be interesting. “I expect a high level of recruiting next year because of this year’s success,” said Baynes. “I hope for improved productivity from lab changes and robotics courses reinforcement. We cannot guarantee a group of students like this year’s every year, but hopefully we will attract similar personalities because of the competition and because its robot is student led, student designed, student built, student driven – unlike many other FIRST Robotics Competition teams where coaches and mentors are hands-on the robot design and build.”
Rousseau noted long-term benefits she gained from being on the team. “Learning to cooperate with a team is invaluable,” she said. “Trying to build a robot gets very messy at times, and I learned how to persevere and try new approaches to problem-solving if the first few ideas don’t work.”
She learned how to tackle an open-ended project. “Robotics was so much more like the real world than any class I took; there was no right answer, no instruction manual, and there was a hard deadline. Learning how to manage the six weeks of build and end with a functional robot taught a lot of skills that homework problems couldn’t.”
But the best thing Rousseau got out of the program were her many good memories. “During the build period, I would spend on average 40 hours a week, after school and weekends, on robotics. That, plus traveling to competitions, meant that most of my extracurricular life revolved around the team.”
Rousseau absolutely encourages girls to join the team; this season, 11 of the 40 members are female. “The more diverse perspectives the team has, the better the outcome will be,” she said. “Robotics teaches everyone how to be confident in their skills and how to communicate their ideas to the rest of the team, which can be particularly beneficial to women going into male dominated STEM fields.”
Rousseau noted that her decision to become a high school physics teacher had everything to do with her time at Harker. “I was fortunate enough to have two amazing physics teachers at Harker, Ms. [Lisa] Radice and Dr. Nelson, who inspired me to major in physics at Caltech. They are definitely in my mind as examples of the type of teacher I hope I’ll be able to be.”
Following a stellar season, Tierno reflected on his time in the robotics program. “I screamed so loud at our competitions that my voice went hoarse,” he said. “We had the right students, the right mentors, and the right organizational structure to create this perfect storm that led us to our successes. I’ve just been filled with an overwhelming pride for this team.”