Making Weston history, a group of eight Weston High School sophomores earned themselves a ticket to the 2022 World FIRST Championship of Robotics in April by winning the MA First Tech Challenge (FTC) state championship matches.
This group of students: Alex Ko, Arjun Jasuja, Ellie Tillman-Schwartz, Finley Campbell, Sam Atefi, TJ Dahl, Zach Kano, and Zack Gumbert have been robotics enthusiasts since they were in sixth grade at Weston Middle School. Many of them participated in WMS Robotics’ FIRST Lego League (FLL) teams. They coined their name as a team in 2019 at WMS as GNCE, short for Galactic Narwhal Chicken Effect (which is a story for another time).
Two years ago when they were in the 8th grade, the GNCE team qualified for the world championship of LEGO robotics for the first time in town history. The event was unfortunately canceled due to the start of the pandemic in early 2020. Since then, their dream had been to again advance to the world championship; however, the competition is much steeper at the more advanced FTC high school level.
When Weston High School was unable to host its robotics team due to COVID in the fall of 2020, the GNCE students decided to create a private team. They recruited their mentor Cary Gumbert who created a space for a practice “field” in his garage, and began their journey to teach themselves the next level of robotics.
“Having no experienced mentor to guide us, we had to figure out how to design and build our robot from scratch to accomplish the FTC challenge tasks, which included using machine tools for cutting and assembling parts. This was a massive step up from LEGO-based robotics, ”said Ellie Tillman-Schwartz. “Also, we had to learn to program the robot to recognize images and operate autonomously.”
After meeting weekly as a team and staying mostly remote during the pandemic in 2020-2021, they had a very successful year together. They earned the Think award for documentation of their engineering process at the remote regional qualifying tournament, and gained a spot at the MA State Championship held remotely in early 2021.
Fast forward to their sophomore year and the team took their skills to a new level, while facing new challenges at the same time.
“We couldn’t order the parts we wanted for our 2022 robot design due to supply chain issues,” said Alex Ko. “Fortunately, we did have access to a 3D printer, so the whole team took up learning 3D design skills, and we re-imagined our robot in a way that allowed us to print it instead of relying on standard parts. Every team member designed and printed at least one key part of our robot. ”
In the end, the team 3D-printed, assembled, and programmed their robot and got it ready to compete. By FTC tradition, two teams form alliance partnerships on the field of play during competition. GNCE was invited to pair up with a long-established team from Lexington (The Brainstormers) to dominate their regional qualifier match earlier this winter. The pair won the match with a score that ranked 5th in the world at the time. Drivers Zack Gumbert and Zach Kano were at the helm of the robot.
As a result, GNCE earned an invitation to the MA State Championship on March 5th, which comprised the 32 top FTC teams in the state. The state match took place over a full day of judging and multiple matches. In the end, GNCE won the final elimination rounds and the top engineering design Think award.
The FIRST World Championship will take place on April 20-23rd in Houston, Texas. Approximately 160 FTC teams from around the world will participate. Joining GNCE to represent Massachusetts will be Lexington’s The Brainstormers and Beverly’s Wolfpack Machina.
It’s not just about winning
GNCE Robotics is committed to leaving a legacy by accelerating middle and high school robotics in town. They showcased their 2021 robot for the community at the Arts & Innovation Center in the summer of 2021. Soon after, the new challenge was introduced:
“When we first saw the FTC challenge revealed last August, it seemed incredibly hard and intimidating to figure out how to build a robot that could do so many tasks,” said Zack Gumbert. “The fun part was the process of solving it by breaking everything down into smaller steps. We really want to help others in the community learn about solving engineering challenges and share the fun we’ve had from participating in FIRST. ”
“We were hoping to become involved with mentoring the WMS robotics program again, which was still on pause due to the pandemic,” said Sam Atefi. “We decided to start a new middle school team, but when twenty students showed interest, we realized we could start two new teams. We aim to boost the momentum of the program so that it can continue successfully long into the future. ”
GNCE team members, with the support of Mr. Dan Taylor, the middle school science teacher who oversees their robotics program, successfully assembled two WMS teams in the fall of 2021. GNCE volunteers spent several of their weeknights for a total of more than 200 collective hours at school mentoring the newly created teams throughout the fall.
In working with and interviewing this group of students, it is obvious how much robotics has made an impact on them personally. They have formed a special bond through grit, hours of effort and creative problem solving, and teamwork. The awards and recognition are the icing on the cake for them.