Pick, Pack, Punt: A Disaster Waiting to Happen

The field for Pick Pack Punt

On November 19, Pick Pack Punt (PPP), an internal competition organized by Team Berkelium, became a reality. After a long period of design and experimentation, small teams finally had the opportunity to test their robots on the actual course. With some last minute refining, teams had the chance to collaborate in person and see months of hard work come to fruition. Although PPP gave newer students experience with the basics of robotics, looking back, we would make some adjustments to the structure of the competition. If you’re looking to host a competition of your own, here are our mistakes, and here’s how you can learn from them:

  1. Organization – We cannot stress the importance of organization enough. Hosting a competition with limited resources and experience requires weeks of planning, and isn’t something you can forgo. Decide on the venue and structure as far in advance as possible — there’s sure to be unanticipated setbacks along the way, so leave yourself more then enough time to address them. One of the most important things we learned from our experience with PPP is that test-runs are essential. The day of the PPP competition was the first time students had access to the course, and it took a while for students to adjust to the change in venue.
  2. Motivation – It’s a pandemic, and students are already under a lot of pressure — whether it be academic or social. Make sure that you set a timeline for students to follow. This will help discourage students from procrastinating – which is a totally natural response to COVID-19 – and set achievable goals that can increase motivation. Additionally, check in with students about progress. One of the biggest challenges with PPP was the lack of accountability for students. It was easy to fall behind and completely give up on the project, so take steps to ensure that doesn’t happen for you.
  3. Support for New Students – The goal of PPP was to engage newer members of the team with FRC style competition, and to provide students with a hands-on opportunity to work with robots. While our plans worked perfectly in theory, the pandemic made it much harder to support newer students. Newer students are going to feel overwhelmed without slow and simple introductory lessons, so make sure that you simplify everything as much as possible. Provide instructions for the base, and give students the opportunity to get creative at later phases. Offer videos and share resources for beginners.

Overall, PPP really allowed us to adapt as a team, and we believe that if we begin our next adventure with all of these lessons in mind, we can use our past experiences to grow. It’s a pandemic, of course everything won’t go perfectly. It’s not about getting it right the first time, or even the second. It’s about learning from past challenges and growing as a team.

Pick, Pack, Punt: How Robotics Does Distance Learning

Since quarantine began, the whole team has been working hard to create educational opportunities for our students. We’re achieving this through an offseason competition specifically tailored to the unique circumstances we find ourselves in. Pick, Pack, Punt (PPP) is the result of hard work from the whole team (especially leadership), with a goal of engaging both new and old students with hands-on robotics. 

Students are split into teams of five, with more experienced students leading younger ones to build unique robots. The competition consists of a three level playing field, each presenting its own unique challenge for the teams to overcome. Each level introduces a variety of challenges, which can be anything from designing a robot that can launch balls across the field to programming a fully autonomous robot.

In addition to providing students with a fun and creative way to gain competition experience, PPP is also a great intro to STEM and the glories of real FRC. Students need to design, assemble, and test robots in a quick and efficient manner. Additionally, students are challenged to code an autonomous AI-driven robot and program the control systems, which is a valuable skill for FRC.

Of course, coordinating this has not been without its difficulties. The strain COVID has put on the online shopping industry has created major holdup for supplies, with some components being delayed as much as two weeks. But even with these outside variables, each and every team persevered and adapted to the challenging conditions. It has been an inspiration to see the effort and intelligence of every team.

One important aspect of PPP is the incorporation of VEX, a STEM tool designed to teach newer students the basics of robotics and mechatronics. VEX focuses on three skills central to robotics: CAD, mechanical engineering, and programming. Because of its streamlined nature and great flexibility, VEX is a perfect platform for collaboration during the pandemic.

Through our implementation of VEX and PPP we hope to make this time productive and informative for all team members. It will be a valuable learning experience for newer students and teach older students about leadership and the importance of organization. Even with the logistical strain the pandemic has put on the team, we still truly believe that we will emerge as a better, stronger, and more prepared team once the FRC season finally begins. 

Robotics during a Global Pandemic

A student attends a virtual robotics meeting over Zoom.

The massive scale and unpredictability of the coronavirus pandemic has brought unprecedented challenge, but we see this as an opportunity to learn and grow. Through the dedication of student leadership, Team Berkelium has been creating programs to support new members, working on an internal competition, and improving outreach. 

In response to the pandemic, Team 5419 has been developing projects to work on in the months before the season begins. We are also making efforts to educate new students and make sure they have the tools they need to be successful in FRC and in STEM as a whole. Furthermore, we have completely overhauled our system of educating new students to accommodate the pandemic. Making sure that even in the worst of situations, every student is given the opportunity to learn and grow.  

Team 5419 is composed of several specialized sub-teams, each of which is adapting to the pandemic differently. The controls team has been designing a class to introduce newer members to the basics of the computer programming languages that that the team will be using. Raphael Huang and Nicholas Underwood, the leads of the controls team, have been hosting workshops during robotics meetings to support newer members. These workshops involve a large range of demonstrations, practice problems, and guided exercises. 

Because many of the new members don’t have any experience with programming, Huang and Underwood have been guiding groups of students through the process of downloading runtime environments and text editors.

Additionally, newer members have learned how to execute basic code in Kotlin, which is the primary coding language the team uses for robot code. Many newer members already have experience in Python, so Huang and Underwood have been expanding on that knowledge and introducing students to the structures of object-oriented programming.

Similar to what the controls team is doing, Dane Hohmeyer is taking the lead in starting a class designed to help familiarize newer members with the mechanical side of robotics. Because the team can’t return to in-person work in the near future, the class will primarily serve as an introduction to computer-aided design (CAD). CAD refers to the use of computers for engineering 3D models, and is incredibly helpful when designing robots.  

Both the controls team and mechanical team are hosting office hours to offer additional support to any members that are struggling or have questions.

In addition to the introductory classes, the mentors (alongside the leadership team) have created a teamwide competition that they’re calling “Pick, Pack, Punt.” Teams of 4-5 students will collaborate to design and manufacture robots that will complete a variety of challenges to earn points. Although most of the construction will be completed individually, teams will have opportunities to meet virtually to plan and design the robots together. Along with the support of their peers, students are encouraged to seek help from mentors and more experienced team members. This project is yet another way we are working to remain active and educate students during the pandemic.

Team Berkelium is also using this time to redesign their website and strengthen their social media presence. 

Throughout the year, we hope that we can continue to find ways to strengthen bonds between teammates and encourage STEM learning and innovation.