The original goal was modest — to build a moving robot, no bells or whistles required. What started as one parent’s idea to have a robotics team at Alexandria’s High School quickly morphed into the student-run Titan’s Robotics team, or formally, FIRST FRC Team 5587.
The team resides within something of an umbrella program called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). From preschool up to high school, students compete in robotics and related competitions, as well as promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) awareness within the community.
First Robotics Challenge, the high school division the Titans compete in, had a wildly successful season in their first year in 2019. They won the Engineering Inspiration award for completing one outreach event every week in the 2018-2019 season, qualifying them to go to the world tournament in Detroit. They averaged around 50 outreach events from their highly anticipated STEM summer camps, crafts at Art on the Avenue and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s community event Noche de Ciencias.
They had high hopes for the following year until they got an email 24 hours before their completion in March 2020. Due to the pandemic, their competition was cancelled. In April, when COVID-19 only seemed to keep accelerating, they cancelled their summer camps. Alexandra Silberglied told her students to pack their robots, go home for the summer, and wait, even if there was nothing to wait for.
Silberglied, a volunteer and mentor for the Titans team, discussed the team during our interview at a coffee shop (where the whirring of blenders and coffee grinders likely echoed the familiarity of the team’s workshop power tools).
Her main job is to “help kids figure out how the heck to do this robot thing,” while letting the students run the show. Silberglied has been involved with FIRST since 2006, when she competed in high school, and after graduation, started volunteering for multiple divisional teams. After five years of experience, she joined the then one-year-old Titans team, with the gumption and grit to make the team anything but static.
“So much about (robotics) is about hands-on experience and it isn’t easy online,” Silberglied said. You have “no sense of what is easily machinable unless you try to build it.” However, the volunteers, the seniors watching their last season disappear, the freshman just getting started, the team, were not ready to give up their season just yet.
Instead of forgoing all their planned programs, they tried to make everything virtual. Their scheduled summer camps went completely online, and free to the public. The students uploaded YouTube videos and PowerPoint curriculums for kids to work through at their own pace, incorporating experiments with things they could find around the house. Animated videos about the science behind washing your hands, surface tension, chemical reactions, even engineering in Minecraft made topics like CAD, Google sheets and scientific method enjoyable.
With no in-person competitions, the team works on virtual challenges, CAD and programming challenges, tutoring sessions and collaborates over Zoom to make plans for the future. Along with the virtual camps, they will participate in Noche de Ciencias online, and will try to participate in their other Alexandria community events virtually.
Without access to their school’s workshop, Building Momentum at The Garden offered their workspace and hands-on training in exchange for the team’s time volunteering to make desks for charity.
With this space, and the garages of willing parents, the team will focus on redesigning last year’s robot for the next competition. Even if there are no hopes of going to the world competition, building the smartest robot or something as small as working together in their own classroom, Titans robotics is going to keep in mind their humble goals and beginnings and keep moving.