How Quaker values helped a group of Middle Schoolers shine at a robotics competition.
Every year, under the skillful eye of Coach Darby Thompson, the Upper School Robotics Club competes in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Competition, the culmination of months of work in engineering, coding, design, and innovation. Each August, FIRST sets out a specific thematic challenge; this year, it’s “Energize.” Students were asked to incorporate sustainable energy concepts, including remotely moving energy cells, starting a wind turbine, and engaging solar panels. The Upper Schoolers will do just that—in February.
But in the Middle School, a group of seven boys, all 6th graders, decided they couldn’t wait until 9th grade to get started with FIRST. One of their parents, Matt Phillips P’29,’31,’33, stepped up to help. Phillips, a national security, strategy, and defense consultant, inhaled hours of YouTube videos, enlisted two more parents, offered his basement, and acted as coach for the 11-year-olds. Using Lego (unlike the Upper Schoolers, FIRST’s 10-to-14 age group does not wield power tools), the “Foxbots” team, as they called themselves, worked from late October through January.
They built Lego robots, they coded, and they studied Thorium as a potentially safer form of nuclear energy. They even interviewed a nuclear energy expert—another Sidwell Friends parent—and wrote a skit to showcase their understanding of the technology. But most of all, they worked together, supported one another, and genuinely enjoyed the process, even when it was difficult.
Facing stiff competition from veteran FIRSTers, most of whom started their projects two months earlier, the Foxbots entered the contest on January 14, as underdogs. And though the team did not move from the regional competition to the state level, they did something right. While other teams earned engineering awards, innovation awards, and robot performance awards, the Foxbots won the Judges Award (also known as the Motivate Award), which is given to the team that, during the course of competition, is consistently in the running for other awards, who various judges “have noticed and commented on the positive aspects of the team,” and who “has fully embraced the principles of FIRST” (like inclusion, teamwork, and positivity).
“Building and coding robots to act autonomously is not easy, even with Lego robots,” says Phillips. “I couldn’t be more proud of the amount of effort that our team put in, and it was great to see their hard work and enthusiasm pay off—especially when they won the Judges Award. Seeing our team recognized not just for their hard work, but also for their enthusiasm and teamwork, was really great. They are amazing kids, and they carried their Quaker values with them throughout the competition.”
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