Local secondary students off to international robotics competition after provincial win

Two Hamilton-area secondary school robotics teams are headed to Houston, Texas, this week after winning the top spot at the 2022 Ontario Provincial Championship on Saturday, the FIRST robotics qualifying competition held in Mississauga.

The teams from Governor Simcoe Secondary School in St. Catharines and Orchard Park Secondary School in Stoney Creek shared first place with a third team from Huntsville Secondary School, after facing off as a group against more than 60 teams from around the province over Easter weekend.

They will now compete against 400 teams at the FIRST Robotics world championship, which runs April 20 to 23.

At least one other local team, Celt-X Robotics, from Bishop Ryan Catholic Secondary School in Hamilton, is also making its way to Houston.

“I’m just going to try and have fun and see what happens,” says Governor Simcoe student and team member Nolan Graham, who was inspired by his older sister when she was on the team before him.

“I watched the competitions… so I just was like,‘ okay, that’s what I wanna do when I get to high school, ’” Graham told CBC Hamilton after Saturday’s win.

Matthew Coffey, a team mentor and former team member, said the win meant a lot to him because he could see how it made students feel.

“After we won, confetti fell from the ceiling and it was just a cool experience to see how excited the kids were,” he said.

Robotic misconceptions

Coffey says there’s a common presumption that robotics competitions involve robots dueling each other on stage, but that’s not accurate.

“The goal is not to hurt another robot, it’s to work together with your team to score more points than the other team,” he said.

Coffey competed with the Governor Simcoe team, called the Simbotics, from 2007 to 2011, when he was a student at the school. Now he mentors the team as a way to give back.

“Ever since I graduated, I’ve come back to help out. I’m currently an elementary teacher at a different school, but I’m just returning the favor of mentors who helped me – I’m now helping other students,” he said.

Joining robotics programs like this one is an important part of learning about robotics, said Coffey. He said the one at Governor Simcoe is unique, especially because they have mentors directly from the field of engineering.

He also pointed out that the drive and energy from joining programs like this help students believe in where they can go in the field.

“A lot of these kids go on into fields that have been inspired by this program,” Coffey said. “It’s crazy to see the difference between students who come into Grade 9 and how they leave in Grade 12. Their confidence definitely changes.”

‘Friendly competition’

Although getting robots to fight each other wasn’t on the to-do list this past weekend, the challenges that the teams completed with their robots were still physical.

One challenge that Coffey describes was getting their robots to shoot what looked like oversized tennis balls into a goal. It sat at around 2.5 meters high in the air.

All three of the teams ’robots are pictured after the winning match on Saturday. (Submitted by Eddy Gunawan)

In the last 30 seconds, there’s a match that he describes as an “End Game.”

“The students had to design a robot that could climb onto these bars and you got more points for climbing from bar to bar – sort of like monkey bars on a playground,” he said.

And despite it being called a competition, it is still very collaborative.

“If there’s an issue where one of our opponents is missing a part or something broke, teams all come together to help them out and fix it,” he said.

“It’s a competition, but everyone is working together.”

Overcoming COVID challenges

Graham says he was grateful for the extra support from Coffey, who he said was great at keeping the team grounded and focused.

“He’s a really calming influence, especially during the matches,” said Graham, who plans to study computer science when he’s done high school.

Having a mentor like Coffey on the sidelines is helpful, because according to Graham the competitions can get intense.

“Say something on the robot breaks, you only have a really short time to fix it.”

Members of the robotics teams from Governor Simcoe Secondary School, Orchard Park Secondary School and Huntsville Secondary School pose with their robots after winning on the weekend. (Submitted by Eddy Gunawan)

And while that challenge didn’t present itself during the competition, the biggest one that arose was a recent COVID outbreak on the team.

Since parts of the team were missing due to illness, he said they needed to retrain people in time for the competition.

But he doesn’t think that hindered their performance, especially because they won.

“The other people on our team really stepped up and did amazing,” Graham said.

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