Local Robotics Clubs Prove Their Mettle by Earning Medals

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A spotlight on three robotics clubs that thrive on learning new skills and team-building

DARC SIDE team captains Bryan Cornejo, 17, Ella Simmons, 17, and Chris Morris, 17, launch an oversized tennis ball from their robot, Spinshot, which was used at last year’s competition.

By Amber Watson | Photography by John Michael Simpson

Many Durham schools are known for their STEM classes and clubs, and the accomplishments of several highly ranked competitive high school robotics teams are proof of their success. TerrorBytes Robotics of Research Triangle High School, DARC SIDE of Durham Academy and the Zebracorns, which was founded and is hosted at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, have all grown in popularity and accomplishments over the years. Team mentors and students proudly share the awards they’ve earned, skills they’ve acquired and team-building experiences that make robotics so much more than a simple engineering club.

Meet the Makers

This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the TerrorBytes, and to commemorate the milestone, they plan on working up some new logos and team-bonding exercises. Students who’ve learned how to program with LEDs, for instance, may come up with something involving programmable LED strips or matrices, while others may want to put a stylishly designed sticker representing of one of their other hobbies or clubs on some out-of-the-way part of the robot.

Veteran volunteer team mentor Brian O’Sullivan remembers when the TerrorBytes started with just 11 students and four mentors working out of a small storage closet at the school. Since then, the TerrorBytes have grown to 30 to 40 students from all grade levels who join the group every year. The team has developed relationships with various companies, such as ADR Hydrocut in Morrisville, who lend expertise in engineering and business as well as partner with students in the construction of their robots. In 2018, the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina also generously offered use of one of their properties in Research Triangle Park. “Access to that huge space enabled us to build a replica [practice] field and give our students an opportunity to test their robots in the same conditions they will compete in, a huge advantage in our competition,” Brian notes. The team vacated the building in 2020 to make way for demolition crews to clear the site for Hub RTP and hope to find a new space to call home for practices in 2023 and beyond.

DARC SIDE team members Everett Wilber, 16, and Emily Simmons, 14, deconstruct an arm from a robot used in a past competition.

Similarly, Durham Academy’s DARC SIDE started with just 13 students at its inception in 2016 and were limited to a small classroom with few tools. They now have a dedicated fabrication lab where students – around 30 ninth through 12th graders are participating this school year – can custom-make parts and prototypes. Their outreach efforts have evolved over the years as well – they now work closely with the Museum of Life and Science and Wonder Connection at UNC Hospital School to share their passion for engineering, robotics and teamwork.

“When these organizations host community events, we bring hands-on engineering activities like ‘Candy Catapult,’ where participants learn about the engineering design process and then have to engineer a catapult that can launch candy at a target,” says Leyf Starling, a co-coach and a Durham Academy upper school faculty member for physics, engineering and robotics. “We also bring one of our robots [along] and provide demonstrations while engaging in conversations and discussions about the design process and what our team does. Additionally, we have worked with Wonder Connection to demo and develop activities they can take into the hospital to engage students with engineering opportunities.”

The Zebracorns, meanwhile, are a longstanding club of volunteer mentors, school faculty advisors and students founded in 2002 with the goal of introducing its members to engineering principles through practical application. The team adopted its now iconic zebra- striped look in 2005. Around 2010, the team opened membership eligibility to include students from Durham Public Schools, charter and private schools, as well as homeschooled youth. Today, it openly recruits eighth through 12th grade students from all over the area and routinely includes 50 or so members each year.

Zebracorns Christopher Holley, 15, Diya Nerurkar, 16, and Chadwick Hobgood, 17.

“Over the almost 22 seasons we’ve [done] this, it’s fair to say we have represented all of North Carolina, and we typically have a huge swath of the Triangle represented,” says Marshall Massengill, lead mentor of the Zebracorns. “Our aim is to represent the whole state and to bring in a diversity of students and mentors to create a truly unique experience and act as a melting pot for ideas and culture.”

In It to Win It

There is no “national championship” in robotics, so U.S. teams go straight from their state’s district to the world stage. The Blue Alliance is a tool robotics teams use to research and track tier rank relative to other teams in the FIRST Robotics Competition. FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology,” an organization created by engineer and businessman Dean Kamen to engage students in robotics and engineering.

In district-level FIRST Robotics Competitions, there are qualifying rounds where three robots compete against three other robots to complete certain tasks to win points. In each round, a team is put on an “alliance” with two other teams, making up an alliance of the three robots. During qualifying rounds, the alliances are randomly selected and matched, and the total points per team is calculated. At the end of the qualifying rounds, the top eight teams become “Alliance Captains” and choose which two other teams they want on their alliance for the playoff rounds in the competition.

DARC SIDE team member Emily Simmons, 14, team captain Bryan Cornejo, 17, and team member Everett Wilber, 16.

DARC SIDE participated in three of these FIRST Robotics Competitions this past season. During the district qualifier at UNC- Asheville, the team was on the final alliance that finished second in the playoff round, earning the Excellence in Engineering award. DARC SIDE was again a member of the second place alliance at the end of the second competition in Guilford County, where it was given the Team Spirit Award. Based on the performances in the first two competitions, DARC SIDE advanced to the FIRST North Carolina District Championship, finishing up at No. 15 in the state overall and earning the Innovation in Control Award.

DARC SIDE has long been recognized for its innovative and inclusive approach. In fact, during its rookie year, the team earned a Judges Award at the FIRST Robotics Competition World Championship in Houston. This award recognized the group’s efforts toward making the FRC experience more inclusive through the development and dissemination of a game manual that is more accessible to students with learning differences and ADHD, which they create and publish each year.

The TerrorBytes, meanwhile, were seeded No. 9 entering into the qualification rounds at this past year’s FIRST North Carolina District State Championship. After the elimination rounds, the team advanced to the semifinals, and by the end of the competition, the team ranked No. 6 overall in the state. All of the teams that advanced past the state championship did extremely well, but the TerrorBytes ranked higher in their division than any other North Carolina team at the FIRST Championship.

Sahil Bhatia, 16, and Marshall Massengill, lead mentor of the Zebracorns.

“The FIRST Championship has six divisions, each named after a famous scientist,” shares team mentor Thomas Burke. “We were in the Carver division and ended the competition ranked No. 16 in Carver.” The TerrorBytes were also awarded an Engineering Inspiration award, which celebrates outstanding success in advancing respect and appreciation for engineering within a team’s school and community, at the district qualifier event at East Carolina University and then again at the NC District competitions.

The Zebracorns, which were ranked No. 12 out of the 66 teams in the North Carolina district for the 2022 season, didn’t end up advancing to compete at the world championship event, but did take home awards at each district event including: the Creativity Award and District Event finalist at the UNC-Asheville event for the climbing mechanism on its robot; the Gracious Professionalism Award at the UNC-Pembroke competition for being helpful to other teams at the event; and the Quality Award at the North Carolina District State Championship for the consistency and reliability of its climbing mechanism. They were also a district event finalist at the UNC-Asheville event, along with their friends from DARC SIDE.

(While it’s still a competition, friendships and ties among teams is common. In fact, DARC SIDE was started by a couple of mentors who spent the year prior shadowing the Zebracorns, and they continue to work with them. “We even went over to their space with our robot to hang out and just talk shop at the end of last school year,” Marshall says.) To date, the Zebracorns are the only FRC team in the world running a full software stack based on the Robot Operating System. “Along with our namesake, we think this makes us pretty unique and provides an opportunity for our students to learn real professional skills that are directly applicable to internships and future careers,” Marshall notes. “There are other teams using ROS on their robots now, and I think it’s fair to say we’ve inspired a lot of that, but to date, we are the only team who is not reliant on any sort of translation mechanism, using ROS as our primary means of control.”

Lessons Learned

These teams see a wide range of skills and capabilities with the students who join each year – some come in with prior robotics experience and others enter with no previous knowledge. Working as a team and learning as you go is all part of the process.

“Experience is not the most important factor that’s considered for joining the TerrorBytes – passion is,” Thomas says. “Regardless of a student’s level of experience, the one constant I see is the confidence that grows over time. It’s rewarding to teach a student how to do something and later notice them working independently with little need for supervision, or even better, teaching others how to do it.

TerrorBytes team member Justin Merrill, 17, makes the robot spin with the controller and his computer. Photo by Eric Waters.

This steady growth has to be one of the most encouraging things I see as a mentor.” The greatest takeaway he noticed in his students this past year was not taking “no” for an answer, and instead learning to stretch their capabilities to achieve their goals. “The students insisted on adding machine vision to the robot despite guidance to the contrary from experienced mentors (such as myself),”Thomas says. “We insisted this was unrealistic and gave them a pretty firm ‘no,’ but one student approached me to complain, so I opened the door a little and said, ‘Prove us wrong,’ and they did!”

TerrorBytes team members agree. Research Triangle High senior Justin Merrill says he’s most proud of their robot’s automatic targeting system: “It uses a bright green light and a tuned camera to pick up the reflective tape around the target and turn the robot toward it,” he says. “This system also uses complex trigonometry to find the distance to the target and adjust mechanical features accordingly. I really like the idea of building a complex machine with my mechanical and tool skills to solve problems, and then using electrical and software skills to make the dead piece of material into a functioning machine. Seeing our robot compete on the playing field is the most enjoyable experience.”

His fellow teammate, junior Jackson Doyle, says some of the greatest lessons he’s learned came from collaborating with his peers. “While I’ve worked in groups before, spending hours working on the same project with other people has really taught me a lot about what it means to be part of a team,” he says. “I’m most proud of our journey to the World Championships – we were able to go from being a group where only half of us had ever done robotics before, to a talented, hardworking group who can understand and solve any problem thrown at them.”

TerrorBytes team member Alek Frederick, 17, with a small-scale mock-up of this year’s robot. Photo by Eric Waters.

DARC SIDE’s mentor Leyf notes that each student builds confidence in themselves and as teammates through the process of collaborating, making design decisions and in actually building a robot. “Not only do they gain technical skills in the lab, but they further grow their leadership skills and ability to recognize strengths in others,” she says. “They learn to trust one another and to overcome failure in order to succeed. They invest their time in becoming experts at CAD, grant writing, outreach and marketing, and investing in the FIRST community to share their ideas and learn more.”

“The robotics program over these past three years has helped me grow as a person, an engineer, a leader and a teammate,” the group’s senior captain, Ella Simmons, shares. “I’ve gained confidence, technical skills and leadership practice; and, most importantly, I’ve found a community that has been the keystone of my high school experience. When I entered high school [before joining the team], all I knew was that I wanted to pursue engineering in some capacity. Coming into my first real robotics season during my junior year, I was more focused on experimental physics. However, as the season progressed, I saw what it truly meant to be on an engineering team, and this sparked the realization that engineering work was perfect for me. While physics is definitely still an interest and a passion, it’s engineering that I love. I’m applying as a mechanical engineer to colleges, and I aim to continue with mechanical engineering in the real world.”

After his own eye-opening experience at NCSSM (class of 2005), Marshall found his way back to the team where he was once a student. “We are using far more advanced tools these days, and the level of software sophistication that our students have developed is unreal to me when I think back to my time as a student,” the Zebracorns mentor says. One of the most fulfilling aspects of his role is seeing his students go from wide-eyed novices to focused and assertive leaders. “I also love seeing what our alumni go on to do – some are at places like NASA, Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and IBM, and they email us occasionally for advice or just to tell us that we changed their life – that’s the mentoring good stuff.”

TerrorBytes team member Siri Pillutla, 15, uses a drill press to make precise holes in some of the parts for this year’s robot body. Photo by Eric Waters.

Zebracorn Chadwick Hobgood, a senior at NCSSM, says the skills he’s learned from his involvement with the team have already impacted his future. “I have been able to put [those lessons] into use in the professional world,” Chad says. “This summer, I worked at [Camp Sea Gull,] a sailing summer camp in North Carolina and was promoted to work in the boat shop where my mechanical skills – specifically my ability to read mechanical drawings, work with 3D computer models and power tools, taught by the robotics team – earned me the role of shop chief. This work experience, in addition to my work in robotics, has pushed me to apply for advanced engineering scholarships at colleges both close to home and across the country.”

For many, 2022 was a year of recovery and rebuilding – robotics teams all over the world experienced disruption due to the pandemic, including canceled events, seasons cut short, remote competitions, Zoom meetings and reduced lab time. But these local students and mentors proved that not only can they withstand challenges thrown their way, they can bounce back stronger than ever.

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Amber Watson

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