Former FRC Champion Team Leader Mentored 11 Students from Western China for FRC Competition
Robotic engineers, what would you do to prepare 11 Chinese 16 year-olds for the FRC competition?
While you might be remembering the good old days when you were shining in the FRC yourself, Howard Cohen, a former champion team leader, has taken a step forward to run the competition and coach Team 6227 to win this thing.
The kids are only high school boys and girls who have little knowledge in robotics, and Howard chose an innovative way to prepare them. Instead of sending big books of theories and formula, he used the product and curriculum from a small Silicon Valley startup, ROBOTERRA, to get them familiar with robotics and mechanics.
“Stronghold” is the theme of this year’s game. Howard interpreted it with a reference to the medieval ages when Roman empires were established, castles and moats were built to defend invading enemies. Around the same time in history, another empire, Tang Dynasty (唐朝), was flourishing at the other side of the world with its capital named Chang’an (长安).
Chang’an is now known as Xi’an (西安), but its magnificence and quaintness remained unchanged. Howard knew this when he first step on the ground of this city to meet his 11 kids who were preparing to debut their swan-like robot in FRC, Hawaii Regional.
It was Chinese New Year and this city refused to abandon its New Year tradition, which means almost everything was shut down for this most important festival and people could not purchase pretty much anything besides necessities. Howard and his team could make no exceptions that there was one time they were not able to find tools to cut aluminum to make parts for their robot.
Howard is not the only help Team 6227 got. In the local community, the 11 kids reached out to other resources and got trained by engineer alumni from their own school. They worked together with Howard to help the kids improve their robot.
But that was not the only challenge. Before Howard went to Xi’an, he had been instructing those kids online. Ideas and concepts were well communicated through emails and calls, but students did not know how to read the competition manuals and Howard had not seen the details of their robot yet.
Before getting to the nitty-gritty of the robot, the first problem that Howard needed to fix was the FRC manual. Since everything in the competition would be done in English, the 11 Chinese high-schoolers found it difficult to process those instructions written in English.
That was a huge problem. If students were not able to read or speak English, how could they present their work to the referees in the competition? Howard decided to get them familiar with the language. Under his insistence, they went over the manual again and studied the details carefully and everything was communicated in English. Of course those 16 year-olds could not speak like native speakers, but with the help of Google Translate, they managed to work through problems.
“At that point, it’s not grammar, it’s particular words that we don’t know how to say. Other than minor grammar things, they are pretty good at English.” Howard now believes his students are able to cope with the competition referees, in English.
Howard is confident about the kids’ robot. It is a swan-like robot -- shaped as the elegant yet aggressive creature in the wild -- which is a good sign to compete in this year’s game: STRONGHOLD, if it really inherits swan’s fighting capacity.
Although Howard spoke highly of the swan, it could not take any castles before having one technical problem fixed -- it didn’t have 8-inch bombers at every corner, which is also a requirement specified in the manual that the students didn’t get.
Technical problems are easy to fix. The more important thing to Howard is beyond the robot.
“A common misconception about FIRST Robotics Competition is that everybody thinks it is about the robot, but robot is really just the magnet that brings everybody together.” Howard said he have worked with many other teams who were just not “together”.
Luckily, the kids have the cohesion and the maturity to work toward one direction while maintaining everything else they need to take care of respectively.
Now that they are in the final stage to get ready to the competition, worry is overwhelmed by excitement. Anyway, who doesn’t wanna go to Hawaii to watch robots fighting each other?