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VIDEO: Local Robotics team gets ready to compete in Richmond

Wednesday, Mar. 19 | By Hannah Dellinger
--Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
It’s not every day that you see a genuine robot dance-off in Fauquier County.

On Tuesday afternoon Highland School students erupted with excitement upon watching the school’s robots duke it out to electronic music. The school put on a robotics pep rally to pump up the school for the Robotics Team’s competition at the For Inspiration and Recreation of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics Competition Virginia Regional in Richmond that will take place starting today and through the weekend.

“I think when you’re in math and science class, you sometimes think, ‘When am I going to use this? Why do I need to learn this?’” said Cassin Bertke, the assistant head of school and upper school director of Highland. “But, when you’re down in the lab, building a robot, you’ve got to be able to do these things right there in this timed six-week constraint.”

Highland began its kindergarten through twelfth grade robotics program about five years ago with a Junior Lego League (JLL) team that was supported by coaching from upper school students and parents. The JLL team was such a success that the older students wanted something for themselves.

Soon the Robotics Team, known as the Robohawks, formed. The Robohawks consist of engineering, programing and business teams that all work together to make the program continue.

“It’s an expensive program,” said Bertke. “We spend about $20,000 a year and that includes the tournament fees, which are very pricey. There’s a lot of fundraising that has to be done, so we count on the business team to make that happen. We also count on these adult mentors who are volunteering their time so generously.”

The program offers a unique extracurricular opportunity to prepare students for future careers by giving them hands-on applicable lessons from professionals in the field.

“I joined the team, because I’ve always been fond of science and math and I like seeing how things work,” said Jamie Willey, the Robohawks team captain and a senior at Highland. “It’s nice to be able to make something that works.”

Willey said that this year’s regional competition involved building a robot that could transport a large ball and be able to pass it to other robots.

“Competitions usually involve about 64 teams,” said Willey. “The first couple of days are practice rounds, so that people can weed out the bugs in the robots. Then we get into ranking matches, where your performance in a match results in a point value that determines how you are ranked among all 64 teams.”

Willey said that the top eight teams then gets to pick two other teams to form an alliance. The alliances compete against other alliances in the elimination round.

“If we make it to the elimination rounds, we did good,” said Willey. “Last year we did, but a technical malfunction at the last minute kept us from doing anything. But, we’re really proud of our performance last year and hopefully we can duplicate that this year.”

The Robohawks will also compete in the Chesapeake Regional FIRST Robotics competition in Baltimore, MD starting on April 3.

Entering into two competitions will increase the team’s chances of making it to the FIRST Championship in St. Louis, MO on April 24.

According to Bertke, the Robohawks are a young team compared to other programs that have been around for decades. Her hope is to grow the program in the future by recruiting younger students who can develop their skills over their time at the school.

“We have a lot of freshmen and sophomores this year,” said Bertke. “There was a lot of skill-building at the beginning and I think that now, we are poised to have great success in future years.”

The Robohawks placed 28th out of 46 teams the Virginia Regional.

"It was a great opportunity for us to tweak some code and mechanical bits, so we have reason to be optimistic for the
Chesapeake Regional on April 3 through 5," said Bertke.

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