It’s more than just robots.
The Dalton High School Catabots 6887 may be a rookie robotics team, as this is their first time competing in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), but that has not stopped them from qualifying for the state competition at the University of Georgia in April.
According to the FRC website, teams compete under strict rules, limited resources, and an intense six-week time limit to raise funds, design a team brand, and build and program an industrial-size robot to play a difficult field game.
When the team competed at the first qualifying event in Gainesville, they ranked 35th place out of 40 competing teams. From there, they evaluated what needed to be improved, and by their second qualifier in Dalton, the team placed 9th out of 37 teams. They also received the Rookie Team Award, giving them an automatic entry to state.
Team advisor and engineering teacher Jessica Ashlock explained that out of 82 robotics teams in Georgia, only the top 45 go to state. "The judges asked our students questions and were impressed with how organized they were," she said of the Rookie Award. "They liked seeing the camera the students put on the robot, which allows them to send footage to their sponsors to update them on how the team is doing and to future sponsors to let them know what they do."
Ashlock decided to start the team last year as part of a strategic effort to prepare a skilled workforce for advanced manufacturing employers in the Dalton area, as well as to create opportunities for female students to get involved in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. She worked with Georgia FIRST Robotics President Connie Haynes to lock in sponsors for the team: NASA, Shaw, Densmore Machines, Alliance for Innovation and Sustainability, and Dalton Utilities. Ashlock also wrote and received a grant from the Dalton Education Foundation.
While she completed paperwork, it was the 42 team members who designed the robot, lovingly named Jerome, and split up into specific team roles to manage the programming and business elements like finances, public relations and marketing.
Two students involved in dual enrollment classes at Dalton State are in charge of learning Java to program the robot and in teaching it to the other students to build a strong team of coders.
Freshman Jose Cruz, lead team mechanic, explained that the students observed robots built by college teams and created a list of "musts" before ordering the parts to build their own custom robot. The competition's theme this year is "Power Up," and each team's robot has to drive up to a set of boxes and place them onto either a three-foot switch or a six-foot scale in a timely manner.Jerome uses a mechanical arm to suck the box up and shoot it onto the platform. Cruz said the team has made a few changes along the way, like getting the arm to work before the second competition. "Before state, we plan to put pneumantics on the robot to use air-powered cylinders to improve our box grabber," he said. "We need something more sophisticated."
The team has several community mentors that advise the students on how best to improve their robot. Kelsey Pelham, a mechanical engineer from Shaw, has attended every meeting and given vital advice as the students constantly tweak Jerome to beat out their competitors. Jimmy and Jonathan Densmore, owners of Densmore Machines, also serve as mentors.
Freshman Denice Jaquez had experience on a Lego League team in Mexico before moving to Dalton last year and is able to share that expertise with her new team. She has played various roles on the team and is currently learning to drive the robot to take on that role at state.
Jaquez decided to join the team as a way to make friends at a new school and to get involved so she could "become a Catamount." She said the team has done a good job of learning to work together. "Team communication is essential in this process," she said. "If everyone doesn't know all about your robot, it's not useful."
Cruz explained that the judges noticed Dalton's teamwork, as well as their willingness to help other teams. One competitor was struggling with their robot, and the Catabots helped them with several design options to fix the issue.
This philanthropic mentality is a common theme with the Catabots. Earlier in the year, they provided clothes racks to the Northwest Georgia Family Crisis Center through a DEF grant they wrote titled "Racks of Love." Last year, students gave furniture to hold clothing to the center, and they wanted to return this year with a way for women to "shop" for things they needed more easily.
Ashlock said assembling the racks and spending time at the center was a great team building exercise to bring the students together. "Our first mission is to grow as a person," she said. "We want to think outside the box, to be employable, to be a good community member. It's more than just robots."
The Catabots also plan to mentor younger DPS students with the C3 center's Lego League team (also under the FIRST umbrella) through the engineering process and to help them build their Lego robots. The high school students will serve as judges and competition organizers. They would also like to help start a FIRST team at Dalton Middle.
Beginning on March 28, the team is allowed six hours, per the FRC rules, to work on their robot before the state competition on April 5 in Athens. They are currently brainstorming changes to be made before they can "open the bag" and practice driving Jerome. The team is also seeking more fundraising opportunities to have the funds necessary to travel to state. Teams that qualify at state will continue to the FIRST World Championships April 19-22 in Houston, Texas.
Follow the team on Instagram at @dalton.catabots.frc6887 for videos, pictures and updates at the competition.