Credo High’s underdog robotics squad headed to world championships
Five minutes into Monday’s practice session for the Credo High School Eco Robotics team, Clawdia suffered the mechanical equivalent of a pulled hamstring.
Clawdia, so named for the grasping mechanism at the end of her mechanical arm, is the tank-style robot that has taken the underdog Gryphons robotics squad to dizzying heights in just its fourth year of existence.
Despite being one of the smaller clubs at the FIRST Robotics Competition in San Francisco March 16-19, Credo finished in the top three out of 42 teams. Thus did the public charter high school in Rohnert Park earn an invitation to the FIRST World Championships, from April 19-22 in Houston, Texas.
“This is robotics, things break,” observed one of the dozen team members crowded around the injured machine — a sentiment not so far removed from “Rubbin’ is racin’” the old NASCAR saw explaining that some collisions and crashes are to be expected in stock car racing.
“Can we get some needle-nose pliers,” asked Carlo Woolsey, the team’s technical captain.
“The problem was remediated,” he later explained, “by removing tension from the chain, then loosening the spacers, and spinning them an arbitrary number of times.”
What Florida Atlantic University is to this year’s NCAA Final Four, these Gryphons are to the upcoming competition in Houston, where 600 teams from around the globe will match wits and robots.
“There are teams with 150 students,” said Grace Kellison, a Credo senior who is the club’s operations captain. “We currently have 19 active members.”
FIRST is an acronym: "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science & Technology." It was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, the big brain behind the Segway, who was saddened by the small numbers of young people considering careers in science and technology.
The robotics challenges he started in 1992 have grown wildly popular. “Kids are just totally stoked on it,” said Julian Shaw, who teaches pPhysics at Credo, and is the club’s “mentor.” Because the team is almost completely student-run, he says, “I just turn up, open the doors, give advice when needed and make sure the finances work.”
Determined to bring all its members to Houston for the world championships, which will cost $25,000, the club is busily fundraising, seeking sponsorships from local businesses, and inviting the public to give to its Donorbox campaign.
“We’re really relying on the support of the community to make this happen,” Kellison said.
One interesting aspect of the club, she said, is that not everyone has to be tech or STEM-savvy.
“I’m an ecology major,” she said. “I never had a particular interest in physics or computers or robotics in general, but it’s really defined the course of my high school experience.”
Nor does Henry Johnson-Cramer describe himself as “very STEM-oriented.” When he joined the club last year, “I wasn’t quite sure of my place.”
At competitions, however, he found that he enjoyed scouting other teams’ robots, “analyzing how they played, looking for weaknesses.”
What kinds of flaws is he looking for? “Well, sometimes it’s like a clear issue with the robot, the arm won’t raise all the way, or something’s wrong with one of the wheels, it’s a little wobbly. That’s definitely something to look out for, especially if you’re playing defense. You want to collide with the other robot, but not knock it over.”
Teams form alliances in these competitions. Indeed, the Gryphons are Houston-bound largely because the dynastic Spartan Robotics club, a powerhouse from Mountain View, thought enough of them to choose them as a partner.
“In a lot of games, we play defense for our alliance,” Johnson-Cramer said. That entails “a lot of getting in the way, a lot of pinning other robots against the wall — but staying within the guidelines, so you don’t cause fouls and penalties.”
All the collisions can be tough on the robots, which do indeed shed spare parts.
“Pieces do fall off,” Johnson-Cramer said. In San Francisco there was a little bucket filled with stray nuts and bolts referred to as “robot barf.”
Kamen insisted that his FIRST competitions be governed by an ethos of “gracious professionalism” and good sportsmanship, and they are. Yet, to hear the students describe the action, there seems to a strong whiff of “Hunger Games” in the air.
Theba Grue Jepsen is a Credo senior whose various roles on the club include scouting — “taking notes of matches and robots, how they’re behaving and the tactics they’re using, then submitting that to our drive team,” she said.
“Like, this robot will straight up ram you, so be prepared. Or this robot” is preoccupied scoring goals, “so it won’t bother you. Or, this robot is actually vengeful, and if you hit one of its teammates it will come after you.”
She delivers her scouting report to sophomore Caroline Merkle, the drive team specialist.
“We spend all this time working on our robot,” Merkle said, “but when we’re at a competition, it’s all about strategy. Basically, I handle all of our strategy stuff.”
When Clawdia is in the arena, Merkle is directing the drivers, telling them what to do, “where to pick stuff up.”
This year, Johnson-Cramer has moved up to “driver,” meaning he controls Clawdia’s mechanical arm. Quinn Craven-Pittman, meanwhile, maneuvers the joystick controlling the base of the robot.
“It’s like a video game, except it’s much harder to control,” he said. He must tread the fine line between driving aggressively — but not knocking rivals over, or thrusting Clawdia’s upraised arm “inside the frame perimeter” of an opposing robot. “That’s a big foul.”
Less glamorous, but arguably more important, is the work done by Brian Niestat, whose daunting title is “technical vice captain.” Along with Woolsey, he is a primary troubleshooter for the club
“It’s less about how much you know,” Niestat said, “and more about the ability to research as you come to need it. Sometimes it feels like we’re building the plane as it’s flying.”
Against tall odds, that plane is taking them to Houston.
You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at email@example.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.