T. C. Williams High School Robotics Team Connecting and Helping Others in Time of Covid

ALEXANDRIA, VA – Even in the midst of a pandemic, high school students across the country are finding ways to further their education and deal with the drastic changes. No where is this more evident than the students from Titan Robotics, the FRC Robotics team from T.C. Williams High School.

The Titan Robotics team winning Engineering Inspiration (EI) at Districts last year (2019).

Marketing Lead Caroline Winakur says, “Up until the moment competition was cancelled, our team was preparing and adapting, and while it was certainly sad that our season came to such an early and untimely end, the team handled it with grace and was still able to be proud of what we could accomplish in the time given.”

Three of Titan Robotics team members mentoring one of their younger teams.

Going Virtual, the Robots Continue to Give Back

Throughout the year, the student-run FIRST robotics team presents at many outreach events to share STEM with the community. Although they no longer attend these events in-person, they are continuing with their mission by creating a series of virtual outreach videos shared on their YouTube account and accessible through their website.

The team at Art on the Avenue in 2019; a kid driving their robot using their Dance Dance Revolution board that they created.

Winakur says, “The team was formed by Mr. Solomon in 2014 and this season was our sixth season. When we were first starting out, the focus was almost entirely on building a robot and then competing. However, in the past few years, we have made the shift from being just a robotics team to also finding ways to give back to our community and be sustainable. While the team is, of course, still largely focused on the robot, our team has realized that it can be so much more than that.”

Titan Robotics team dinner.

Community Outreach

Titan Robotics hosted or participated in 39 community outreach events in 2019 and 10 events in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down for the year. At these events, the team does things such as demonstrate robots and allow kids to control it, offer STEM activities for kids to do, and answer any questions people may have about their robot or our team.

Campers test the coding on their robots at the LEGO Mindstorms summer camp (2019).

“We are an FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition) team, but there are other types of teams within FIRST for different age groups. These include FTC (FIRST Tech Challenge, 6th-12th grade), FLL (FIRST LEGO League, ages 9-14), and FLL Jr. (FIRST LEGO League Jr., ages 6-10). Our team has helped start many of these teams throughout Alexandria, often based in schools or community centers in order to make these teams accessible to all children. Our grouping of Titan Robotics and the FTC, FLL, and FLL jr teams we start is called Titan Robotics Coalition, and currently includes 26 teams, although we plan to continue expanding,” Winakur adds.

Titan Robotics at Worlds.

Making it to Motor City

In 2019 the team made it to the World Championship, held in Detroit, by winning a special award, Engineering Inspiration, at District Champs. This award recognized the team for their significant impact through their outreach, highlighting their nontechnical achievements over the past two years.

While learning and demonstrating, the team also bonds over their experience, Winakur says. “Our robotics team is truly a community, and the friendships that are formed extend even beyond the team. Since the team includes 9th-12th graders, older team members can act as mentors to younger members, helping them not only learn skills for the team (which can also be applied to many areas of life) but also guiding and advising them in other areas, such as which classes to sign up for in school or helping them with difficult homework. This team provides an opportunity for students to meet people they may not have otherwise and build long lasting friendships. During build season, when we are sometimes in the shop for 9+ hours per day, we often have team lunches and dinners where food is supplied to all members and we eat together in a circle talking, de-stressing, and building team culture.”

The Power of Video

What is most timely is their virtual outreach video series that they made to stay connected with the community despite being in quarantine. “Students write, film, and produce their own videos at home, usually in teams of two. Although they are working remotely, we are still encouraging students to collaborate on their projects because we want to continue to promote teamwork and communication even while social distancing,” says Winakur.

She adds, “Our goal is to provide entertaining and educational STEM content. While most of our content is targeted towards elementary schoolers, we try to make sure that our videos are engaging for students of all ages and their parents. We want to engage students and their families, whether that means doing one of our crafts or beginning to learn how to code in their free time.

Kids and counselors at the Titan Robotics Physics FUNdamentals camp (summer 2019)

Team members create lessons based on their strengths; for example, two of our programmers made a video about coding basics, the electrical team made a video about how our electrical board functions, and one of our members made a fun Tiktok video. We want this to be a fun project both for the kids who watch our videos and for the kids who make them. We post twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays) with bonus content on some Wednesdays and Sundays.”

Despite the change in routine and a unique end to the school year, the team has adjusted. “Our team has been working to adapt to change in positive ways by channeling time and resources to help our community through our outreach videos, using resources to help with COVID-19 efforts (some of our members have sewn masks or 3D printed headbands for face shields to donate to hospitals and community members), and continuing to learn (for example, through our design challenge).”

Keeping Things Fresh, A Challenge is Made

Even with all that goes on, the T.C. Williams students remain focused on the important things. “In order to keep learning new skills and teaching new members despite not being able to meet in person, our team decided to hold a design challenge.

We chose to focus on a skill that can be learned and practiced at home: computer aided design, or CAD for short. Each competition season, we begin by creating a CAD version of our robot early on in the design process in order to plan out our design and expand on our ideas. As such, this is a critical skill for all team members to have. Over the past few weeks, we had a mini competition within our team where anyone who was interested was assigned to a team and then worked together to create a CAD model of a robot. All of these robots were then judged to determine a winner, but the purpose of the challenge was to have fun and learn new things.”

Watch their videos here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFikibzKA7Q&list=PLwYOGjxGOFGPVwwazCmtl_3I_Xeq33v8_

Visit their website for more information about their team and what they do at https://frc5587.org

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