"I'm joining the Robotics Club," my son Ari, 17, told me last year. I had no clue what that meant, but looking over the forms and requirements, it twigged that perhaps it was the championship events held in faraway cities during school days that had captured his interest.
Oh, me of little faith. Teacher Chris Arnold's Burlington Central Robotics Club, a member of FIRST Robotics Canada, is a whirling, spinning cavalcade of motion and learning, working and reworking, designing and creating. A team of 60 students from all grades work with the guidance of mentors and teachers. They work around the clock and the calendar to develop robots that compete in various venues across North America.
The work is intense. While planning and fundraising take place nearly year-round, from the moment the team is told what they must build, the adrenaline kicks in. Teams from across various regions gather at a central location, and the requirements are revealed to everyone at the same moment. Essentially, when the robots are in competition, they are scored on shooting baskets. While this requires precision on its own, the real engagement comes from the fact the robots must work in teams of three.
Competitions can last three days, and as they advance, new alliances are continually formed. Arch enemies are suddenly your teammates; riding a victorious high can be snuffed out with a broken robot. Back in the pits, work goes on that would rival any Indy crew, as scouts from every team assess the competition for weakness and strengths, knowing they could end up teamed with any of them.
Before they get to the competition, there is six weeks of build time. Students and leaders spend two days a week and all day Saturday building. Because the technology is cutting edge, class work for these students is no longer a theoretical what-if. Using CAD software, robots are developed as a virtual assembly first. Operated with a wireless keyboard programmable interface, the robots use a complex system of gyroscopes and infrared sensors as they are operated remotely from the sidelines.
Parents take turns bringing in dinner; mentors representing myriad of the trades come in after a full work day to start working again. If a component isn't available, it is engineered and made. The shop is a midway of precision machining, welding and plasma cutting; clusters of students sorting out every problem and every dead end, senior students taking the lead with juniors knowing they will be required to step up in years to come.
So, how much does all this cost? A small fortune. All the volunteering in the world can't buy expensive components and travel. Enter Ford Canada. Through an innovative program called Drive One 4 UR School, the Burlington Central Robotics Club will be teaming up with their local dealer, Discovery Ford, to raise as much as $6,000 and give people a chance to test drive a great selection of Fords.
On June 2, everyone is invited to come to the school at 1344 Baldwin Street in Burlington. Hop in a brand new Edge, Escape, or an F150. I'll have a Fiesta, a Focus and a Taurus SHO, and together with Discovery Ford staff and me, fellow auto journalists Lesley Wimbush, Peter Bleakney and Jeff Voth will be on hand to help. For every test drive taken, Ford Canada will give the team $20. You must be 18 with a valid driver's license, and there is a limit of one person per address.
Ford Canada has been operating this and other community programs since 2010. More than 500 events and 77,000 test drives have put more than $1 million in donations into worthy coffers like Central's Robotics Club.
The real beauty of an organization like FIRST Robotics? When the Central team was in Tennessee this spring, the Tennessee team, in its first year, found itself in last place. With 55 teams ahead of you there's plenty of room to feel dejected. Arnold's Central team was in third; he's a seasoned pro, with 14 years under his belt. New teams coming in can struggle as they learn, and find ways to raise the needed capital.
As they headed into the finals, Central was scouting teams to strengthen their charge into the final round. Some robots are stronger on offence, some on defence. Smart teams create a strong mix, and augment their robot's skills in an evolving game of technological chess. Imagine the feeling the Tennessee team got when they were tapped by the stronger Central, and they ended up part of a second-place team finish.
For all these kids and their teachers, you're doing amazing work. And to Ford Canada for the boost to continue this work, thank you.