PHRED's Team 847 robot is moved during a qualifying tournament in March. (Photo by Daniel Mendoza/PHRED)

On the floor in orange T-shirts with the team logo, bright orange and yellow safety vests and either yellow hardhats or orange traffic cones upon their heads, Philomath High School’s robotics students no doubt enjoy the competitions.

Over a six-week “build season” in January and February, PHRED members take their robot from prototype to fabrication to assembly. The mechanical, electrical, software and marketing student teams do their part to perform under strict rules with limited resources on a deadline.

“I think one of the big things that teams have to manage is making sure you have a workflow throughout your entire group,” PHRED team captain Rufus Mainwaring said last week. “You have everyone communicating well and working toward a single goal. … Another big thing is making sure people are engaged.”

PHRED — an acronym for Philomath High Robotics and Engineering Division — participates in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) challenges. FIRST defines itself as a “robotics community that prepares young people for the future through a suite of inclusive, team-based robotics programs.”

PHRED will be hosting its biggest fundraiser of the year this coming weekend with a rummage sale (10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday) at the high school. Those who would like to donate items for the sale can drop them off between 4-7 p.m. Friday or 8-9 a.m. Saturday. The organization put together a list of donation ideas and also what they cannot accept.

“We have a lot of good stuff that people are donating to sell at the best offer,” PHRED mentor Tom Thompson said.

Running at the same time on Saturday will be a mattress sale fundraiser. Mattress World will be on site with its products and will donate $1,000 to PHRED plus 15% of any sales.

The fundraisers are important to the local program with a budget that typically runs $15,000 to $20,000 per year. Grants, sponsorships and personal contributions bring in needed revenue as well.

Mainwaring said the purpose of FIRST is to inspire and educate.

“The first priority is to make sure everyone is learning and being able to participate,” he said. “I think it’s sometimes a challenge to do that but at the same time, it’s an exciting challenge because you’re trying to design this robot in a short time period, build it, get it all together and get the communication done and figure out your strategy, so it’s a lot.”

Professional engineers working on deadlines can likely identify with what the robotics students experience as part of the activity.

“You have such a small timeframe to come up with the concept and then design it but also communicating with the different teams to make sure everyone’s clear on what’s happening to the same goal,” said Caleb Garcia, who specializes in electrical.

Leif Wiger, a junior who works on software, provided a breakdown of what needs to happen from his group’s point of view.

“There’s a lot of trial and error and especially the software testing takes a long time because we’re trying to do things but hardware wants to make changes and electrical needs to finish some wiring,” Wiger said. “Other people working on the robot physically means that we can’t test our code as efficiently. We have to wait on them to finish their jobs before we can really start ours.”

PHRED competes in a qualifying tournament in March. (Photo by Daniel Mendoza/PHRED)

Philomath High’s programs

The FIRST Robotics Competition includes the participation of more than 3,300 teams and 86,000 individuals. PHRED, as Team 847, was one of the pioneer organizations in Oregon — established in 2001 with its first season in 2002. In addition to its FRC team, Philomath also has a FIRST Tech Challenge team.

FRC is the larger of the two and encourages students to specialize in robot design, programming, business strategy or team branding. As indicated, an intense six-week robot-building season gets started each year in January leading up to the championship events in the spring. This year’s team has 18 members.

The FTC team could be likened to a “junior varsity” with a season that starts in the fall and members building a smaller robot. Thompson said there were about 15 students involved.

PHRED’s FRC team had an 8-16 record in official play with appearances March 2-4 at the Clackamas Academy event in Oregon City and March 23-25 at the Oregon State Fairgrounds event in Salem. PHRED didn’t qualify for the Pacific Northwest District tournament this year. The organization earned the Imagery Award at the Salem competition.

“We always gauge it by ‘did the robot do what we wanted it to do in the design?’ and it did extremely well,” Thompson said about this past season. “It’s hard to compare one robot to another because you can’t say we’re going to have the best robot out there because you have no clue what the other robots are like. We did struggle for various reasons with wins and things like that in competition but it still did what it was we wanted it to do.”.

Even though competition season has ended, PHRED members are still working on the robot.

“They’re actually working on doing some upgrades and repairs just to take ideas that they’ve been working with and thinking about and actually doing those before we have to tear the whole thing apart next year and see if it works,” Thompson said.

Logan Todd works with PHRED’s mechanical team. (Photo by Daniel Mendoza/PHRED)

Prestigious award nominee

PHRED team members nominated Thompson this year for a Woodie Flowers Award, a prestigious honor for FIRST mentors. Thompson and other mentors that were nominated were recognized during the Oregon City qualifying tournament in early March.

Thompson has been with PHRED since the program was established 23 years ago.

“My father was an engineer and growing up, we’d tinker with stuff we’d be building around the house, so that’s a fun side for me,” Thompson said. “For me, it’s also fun to be able to work with the kids and see the kind of imagination and creativity that they bring to that and each year is a different game, a different robot, different problems to solve and it’s kind of neat to be in the center of all that.”

Thompson’s love for engineering and robotics rubs off on many of the kids who participate. Last year, for example, one of PHRED’s team members veered away from a career in culinary arts and is now enrolled at the Rochester Institute of Technology studying aerospace engineering.

“He just discovered a talent and an interest and that’s part of it — providing that opportunity to discover something that you can’t always discover in a regular school setting,” Thompson said, “being able to do something different and getting out there and realizing, it’s fun to do this.”

Indeed, many of PHRED’s team members through the years have gone on to study in related fields after high school. As the lone senior and already taking college courses, Mainwaring has a firm grasp on his direction with mechanical engineering. Garcia, a junior, appears to be learning toward electrician but if not, something in engineering.

PHRED is pretty much a year-round activity and team members primarily use Discord, which is an online platform for groups with similar interests, to share and communicate.

Competitiveness and camaraderie

“I think it is competitive — there are a lot of especially competitive teams — but even with that, I think everyone is rooting for everyone else and it’s a really great environment in my experience,” Mainwaring said about the competitions.

The camaraderie develops through students just wanting to see robots perform as intended.

“It’s looking at other people’s bots … and being interested in the mechanism and what the robot is and being like, ‘oh, that’s so cool, I can understand how this works,”” Mainwaring said. “It’s almost like you want all the robots to do well because they have these cool designs and you want that design to be able to function.”

This year’s theme, called “Charged Up” and presented by the Gene Haas Foundation, revolved around the power of renewable energy. In the game, two competing multi-team alliances are invited to process game pieces to bring energy to their community by retrieving their game pieces — yellow cones and blue inflatable cubes — from substations and scoring it into the grid. Players provide game pieces to the robots from the substations and in the final moments of each match, alliance robots race to dock or engage with their charge station.

Mainwaring said PHRED decided that it wanted its robot to have the unique capability of picking up cones that had been tipped over.

“In a lot of FRC games, you can pick up game pieces from a set station that’s usually up in the air a little bit and you have to reach up, which means that the game piece is always going to be the same orientation every time,” he said. “But you know, game pieces end up on the ground. …  We designed ours to be able to intake both vertical cones and tipped-over cones so that we could pick up anything from the ground if we needed to.”

Brad Fuqua

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.

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