Bellingham students take robot to international competition

For a group of high school students, a robot designed to stack totes and recycling cans has done more than just that.

It has lifted their robotics team to a level it’s never been before.

The Sehome High School robotics team, the Sehome Seamonsters, competed in the 2015 FIRST Robotics Competition on April 22-25 in St. Louis, the first year the team made the international competition since the club started in 2008.

The competition featured more than 600 teams from around the world who were all testing their robot-building skills. A little over a dozen Seamonsters went to the competition out of close to 30 total team members.

The Seamonsters made the championship thanks to their high ranks in regional competitions. They placed in the top five in Auburn and Mount Vernon, then took 22nd in the district championship in Cheney on April 1-4. That earned them a spot in St. Louis, where they placed 63rd in their field of 75 teams.

The students say they learned a lot from the experience, and they hope it will spark more interest from Bellingham students so the club can continue to grow and keep competing with international teams.

“We want to be like them, we want to take (the team) to that next organizational, that professional level,” said team captain Zach Larson, a senior.

The Seamonsters had six weeks to create a robot that could stack totes and recycling containers, then dispose of pool noodles efficiently in what First Robotics calls the “Recycle Rush” competition.

Students met after school at Sehome most weekdays, and some weekends, to work on the robot. Some students from Bellingham and Squalicum high schools also contributed.

The robot succeeded in large part because of its simplicity, Larson said. It moves forward, backward and sideways with ease. It has a single-board computer that communicates with a router on the robot. That allows it to be controlled by a joystick attached to a laptop. Students use the joystick to position the robot in front of a tote, lower its metal hooks that move on a vertical slide and lift the tote or garbage can with the hooks.

Once they found out they made the international competition, they had to raise roughly $20,000 within weeks in travel and registration fees. The cost was covered with the help of local business sponsors.

The group of students who traveled to St. Louis said they had a blast interacting with teams from other countries.

Larson said he liked the culture of “gracious professionalism” created by FIRST Robotics at the competition. Liam Taylor, the robot’s programmer, said it was interesting working with other teams and relating to them based on their common interest.

“A lot of them didn’t speak English very well,” Taylor said. “It was very different because you had to essentially show what you were going to do, rather than say it.”

Cai Wang, a junior at Sehome who was part of the Seamonster team, enjoyed talking to a team from China.

“It’s just kind of an interesting cultural thing where it’s just like, there’s a weird connection that you have because of this robotics thing,” she said.

The team said they would like to generate more interest in robotics from the community. Wang has been spending time with girls from Kulshan Middle School and showing them the basics of building a robot and programming.

“We’re looking to make a bigger impact on our community as a whole,” Wang said.

She also wants more girls to join the club to “level out the testosterone in the room,” she said. There were only a few female students in the club this year.

Kevin Criez, an applied physics teacher at Sehome who advises the team, said the club is important for students looking to use the physics and engineering they learn in school. He said it sets them up for success in college and beyond.

“Kids are coming out of here excited about going to college,” Criez said. “They’re excited about what college can offer to them now that they see what they can do with their own hands and applying physics, applying chemistry, applying all that stuff that they learn into something that actually is an exciting project.”