One year ago, robotics enthusiasts at Whiteland Community High School had no outlet for their interest.
Other schools in the area had robotics programs, but Whiteland hadn’t started one. So a motivated group of students changed that, and in two weeks, they’ll be competing against the best robotics programs in the world.
In its inaugural year, Whiteland has reached the pinnacle of high school robotics competition. The Wired Warriors were one of the top finishers in the Indiana championships, and the team was named the state rookie of the year for its success in 2017.
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Their achievements will culminate at the robotics world championship in St. Louis.
“For a first-year team, that just doesn’t happen,” said Brandon Hogan, science teacher at Whiteland and advisor for the robotics team.
Whiteland competes through the Indiana FIRST organization — an acronym meaning For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — which aims to grow robotics programs throughout the world.
Every team builds a robot to compete in the same game, and they don’t know the objective or rules of that game until Indiana FIRST releases it in January.
The Whiteland program came to be with the help of Hogan, who came to Whiteland last school year as an advanced science teacher. Hogan had been involved with robotics programs during his previous teaching job in California.
When students Hannah Reid and Daniel Schieber found out about his experience with robotics, they kept bugging him until he agreed to help them start a team.
“There was a group of physics students who would talk about it small pockets of class time. We kept asking about it until he said yes,” Reid said.
Taking the idea to school administrators, they received permission to start the team. A callout at the end of last school year brought out about 75 students, and when the team formed in the fall, almost 40 students joined up.
For the first four months in the fall, the Wired Warriors focused on laying the foundation for competition season. They watched online videos to learn programming and construction. Students attended a mock match to see what competitions were like and participated in forums at Purdue University to learn more about programming.
Team members mentored middle school students in their robotics programs. The Whiteland team found support among fellow robotics teams in Perry Township and Center Grove, who offered their expertise and experience to help the new team get a foothold.
A major focus was on fundraising. The entrance fees to the competitions the Wired Warriors wanted do totaled $15,000, and that didn’t include money for the robots, supplies and travel, Hogan said. A business committee was formed to attract corporate sponsors and to apply for grants to help.
“We’re an inclusive robotics team, and we don’t charge like a lot of other teams do. So all the money we’ve done has been through fundraising by the students,” Hogan said.
Once the parameters for this year’s competition were released in January, the Wired Warriors set to work building their robot. The machine had to be able to collect plastic balls and place them either in an 8-foot-wide goal or a 3-foot-wide slot, Schieber said.
The next step was to put massive gears on a peg, which are used as part of a complex machine to rotate a lever and turn propellers. At the end of the game, teams had 30 seconds to get their entire robot up a 4-foot rope, Schieber said.
During Whiteland’s first competition at Tippecanoe, they were the highest ranked rookie team, earning the distinction of Rookie All-Star. They nabbed the same award at the state championship April 8 for their success throughout the season, punching their ticket to the world championship.
When the results of the state championship were announced, Whiteland was optimistic that it would make it to the world level. Still, actually qualifying led to unfettered celebration.
“There was lots of screaming and running and jumping and hugging. There were some tears,” Reid said.
The next two weeks will be spent practicing for the world competition. Their robot already has been shipped to St. Louis, so team members will work on their strategy and approach as they go up against about 360 teams from 42 different countries.
They will leave on the morning of April 26 and compete through April 29.
The success of this year has built a buzz among the student body. Although co-captains Reid and Schieber are both seniors this year, a large number of team members are freshmen and sophomores, ready to lead the team even higher.
“When I joined, I didn’t think I’d be a prominent person in robotics. I thought I’d just be there. But as the season progressed, I tried to make myself stand out and be helpful. I’m just grateful I was able to impact the team positively,” said sophomore Jacob Fox.
The hope is that with a high school team established, robotics programs can be launched in lower grades throughout the Clark-Pleasant school system, creating a strong feeder system.
“Starting a base, we have high, high hopes that we can get to that point soon and get programs in the middle school and elementary schools,” Reid said. “As a senior starting this club, my goal from the beginning was for it to last.”