The games begin with top honors for Bear Metal

The No. 2046 robot, named Bearium, would not move; stuck with its mechanical arms up in the air — or its proverbial pants down.

The three-person driving team “lost comm” frantically refreshed the joysticks, rebooting the onboard computer — attempting to salvage the match. Once the rolling dynamo finally regained connectivity, the clock ticked to zero. Tahoma High School’s Bear Metal club had lost the match.

But the point of the FIRST Robotics challenge is not to see how a team’s robot performs once, but how it’s builders respond.

“Malfunctions,” said senior Gavin Collins. “It happens.”

The Bear Metal group competed with 31 other teams from Washington and Oregon in the seasons’ first competition Feb. 28-March 1 at Auburn Mountainview High School. Despite its initial hiccups, the Bears earned first place in the event and also won the coveted Chairman’s Award.

Having grown to more than 150 teams in Washington, FIRST, which stands for, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, changed from its large regionals format to one with multiple district competition. Tahoma will take part in two more events, and if their robot earns enough points, will be among the 64 teams that advance to the Pacific Northwest District

Championship in Portland. In five of the last seven years, the Bear Metal group has earned a spot in the world championship tournament, which will be held this year in St. Louis, Mo.

The robotics challenge gives students 46 days to build a robot that can drive around a 25-by-54 foot field and launch oversized exercise balls into goals — like a basketball through a field goal. The 2014 game is called “Aerial Assist,” which focuses on passing the balls from one robot to another on its team before scoring a goal.

There are 55 Tahoma students in the club, which meets Monday through Friday from 3-9 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“It takes the commitment level of like a varsity sport,” said Darren Collins, Tahoma’s head coach for the last eight years.

But a challenge involving robots is different from a football, chess or cheer squad. The FIRST competition mixes real life engineering skills with team goals and a dash of competition.

“I really enjoy this,” said Tahoma junior Eric De Winter, who started with the club this year. “I couldn’t imagine learning as much as I did about robotics anywhere else.”

Mason Blair, a junior in his second year on the club, said the group has made a concerted effort to help other clubs that are having issues with their robots, with hopes of building relationships outside their own school.

“You learn a lot,” Blair said. “Not only how to build a robot, but also how to work as a team.”

Collins said, excluding travel, the Tahoma team spends more than $30,000 per year for parts, tools and supplies. The Bear Metal Booster Club’s annual dinner and auction will be held at 6 p.m. Friday night. The students also raise funds by hosting a week-long robotics camp in the summer for kids aged 9-13.

Collins said Boeing is also a major sponsor of Washington teams and that multiple Bear Metal alumni currently work as engineers for the company.

“They get their money back,” Collins said of Boeing.


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