Duke Engineering-Mentored High School Robotics Team Earns Trip to State Championship

3/20/23 Pratt School of Engineering

Valence Robotics/Team 8429 aims to take the North Carolina state trophy in the FIRST® Robotics Competition

Duke Engineering-Mentored High School Robotics Team Earns Trip to State Championship

For 2023, every FIRST® Robotics Competition (FRC) team has the same goal: to build robots that can win points by picking up cones and cubes, and accurately placing them at or on a target—then balancing itself on a swinging platform alongside ally robots.

Every team builds its robot from the same central computer and power distribution systems. The sensors that they incorporate are standard issue, as are the encoders that make sense of the game arena.

How a team chooses to design and build the remainder of their robot using those elements, however, is highly strategic, and the resulting variations are what make FRC so much fun.

Robots lined up on platform

It’s also fun to win, so Valence Robotics has had a whole lot of fun over the past several weekends.

The team, which is comprised of Triangle-area high school students from Cary High School, Panther Creek, Green Level, the Hawbridge School, and the NC School of Science and Mathematics, scored high enough at its district-level events to advance to the state championship in Greenville, NC.

Duke Electrical and Computer Engineering Assistant Professor of the Practice Rabih Younes serves as the team’s lead coach and mentor.

“We were improving even as we were going through the competition.”

Rabih Younes | Assistant professor of the practice, Duke ECE

The team’s robot, “Ion,” isn’t the brawniest robot on the field; the maximum allowable weight is 120 pounds and the Valence Robotics robot punched in at only 80.

But being more agile than its competitors is just one of many design choices that have made this year’s team so successful. In fact, at its first district-level championship event in Asheville, the team identified where its robot’s performance was slowest—placing a cone on the highest of two poles—and iterated on the design to give the robot just a bit more reach as soon as they returned to home base in Durham.

“We were improving even as we were going through the competition,” said Younes. “Some teams’ robots were deteriorating, but we were spotting weaknesses and correcting them, becoming stronger.”

Watch a video of the 2023 FNC District UNC Asheville Event

“It was really fun to see everyone in the stands yelling and cheering,” added team member Daniel Zhang, who is the team’s business captain and leads its marketing and fundraising efforts.

“I want to do my part in helping K-12 students in our community, especially those who do not have access to the resources that Duke can easily provide, like knowledgeable mentors and a physical space to meet and work,” said Younes. “I’m grateful that the office of Dean Jerry Lynch has fully supported our efforts from the start. The students are not only gaining technical skills but also essential professional skills, like working efficiently and effectively as a team. Their skills in this area are comparable to my senior and graduate students’ skills, and I’m sure this experience will give them a great advantage when applying to colleges and for scholarships.”

Team members follow the action at the district championship match held at the University of North Carolina - Asheville. Photo by Morgan Chu.

High school junior Twyla Olinger, who has participated in FRC since seventh grade, describes the competition as “nerd sports.”

In January each year, FRC publishes a new manual for the upcoming season. The manual describes the game, details the rules and gives the parameters for the field of play. On the night that the game manual is released online, teams all around the world tune in to watch and react together.

“It’s a huge community event,” said Olinger.

The competition season is compact. The teams train for months in advance of the manual’s publication, but spring into design and build mode as soon as the competition guidelines are released. From there, they have only about a month and a half to finish building a competition-ready robot. Competition events happen on the weekends and begin in early March with two district championship events. The teams with the highest scores move on to the state championship event. If they advance from there, they compete in a four-day world championship event in mid-April.

“One point of FIRST is getting kids involved in engineering processes before college,” said Jack Fowler, the team’s technical captain, who has been participating in FRC for four years. “So, we build through brainstorming, design, initial prototyping … all the steps that a first-year engineering student would learn in college.”

“We build through brainstorming, design, initial prototyping… all the steps that a first-year engineering student would learn in college.”

Jack Fowler | Technical captain, team Valence robotics

On the team of 34 students, there are plenty of people who are new to the competition, too. They work on the pit crew, on the mechanical team, or as “scouts,” who are the equivalent of industrial spies, examining other teams for weaknesses to exploit and noting helpful strategies to imitate. (This knowledge is especially valuable in the final stages of the competition when teams form alliances to take down opponents.) It sounds dastardly, but it’s all in good fun; “gracious professionalism” is a core value that the organization seeks to cultivate in its members.

Students learn as they go, working with more experienced teammates and student mentors studying electrical and computer engineering at Duke. Most of the mentors belong to the Duke Robotics Club, including team photographer, Duke sophomore Morgan Chu.

There are non-technical roles, too, stressed Zhang. Part of the competition entails creating a brand, and teams depend on sponsorships to travel and buy the materials they need. Members who have an entrepreneurial bent or are marketing-savvy, therefore, are just as welcome as aspiring engineers.

When the 2023 season ends, Valence Robotics will refocus its energy on growing and diversifying its membership, said Olinger. They have their eyes on some local programming groups and LGBTQ+ organizations they want to reach out to.

But first, Greenville.

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