How a Silicon Valley robotics club is training the future generation of engineers

It’s a beautiful afternoon in Mountain View, California and Civic Center Plaza has been converted into a technology showcase filled with creations that only a decade ago would have seemed fantastical. Electric skateboards carrying helmeted children scoot around the plaza, while a personal delivery bot cruises seamlessly through the crowd. Even the pizza for sale has been made by robots. 

But the biggest attraction is situated near the eastern edge of the plaza where a knee-high robot built by Spartan Robotics, a club at Mountain View High School, its gears and wires whirling, launches a barrage of yellow wiffle balls into a makeshift hoop. The group competes each year in the FIRST Robotics Competition, an international tournament for high school students that was founded in 1989 to inspire young people to become leaders in science and technology. For this project, the Spartan team had six weeks to build a robot that could launch balls into a tall column, pick up circular gears, and scale a rope.

More than 1,000 people visit the one-day technology showcase, which was launched three years ago to as a way for Mountain View companies to show off their latest creations. It also offers Spartan Robotics a chance to give a live demonstration of their robot to the public, as well as and recruit their next generation of engineers.

The robot Fyn, as it was named by its creators, suddenly lets fly with another barrage of plastic balls, causing a group of children to shriek with delight.

“It’s really great to see kids get excited about what we’re doing,” says Ginger Schmidt, one of the team captains who will attend Harvey Mudd College in the fall. “We want them to know that this is something they can do, too.”

The club began in 2002 with just a handful of kids. At the time, they were granted permission to use an area of a classroom, provided they cleaned up at the end of the day. Now they have their own room and specialized equipment, and have grown to become one of the most elite robotics programs in the world.

They are ranked second in the Bay Area, bested only by a college preparatory school in San Jose, which has won numerous world championships. Earlier this year, the Spartans won the San Francisco Regional Division, and in April they competed in the world championships in Houston, where they advanced to the subdivision finals. 

The club eagerly welcome all newcomers, regardless of ability or previous experience. “We tell the kids when they come on the team, ‘You don’t need to know how to do this,” says Schuh. “It can be a little intimidating, but you’re going to learn stuff.”

Many students take what they learn and don’t stop; previous graduates are designing software to improve vehicle safety, building surgical robots to spot early stage lung cancer and developing drone technology for Google’s secretive “X” project.

Later that evening, thirty members of Spartan Robotics cram into a classroom for the weekly meeting. It’s the off-season, so they’re mostly welcoming new members and tinkering around; one of the agenda items is “Taking apart stuff.” 

When the club began, there weren’t many girls who showed an interest in joining, but under Schuh’s leadership, things have dramatically changed. In 2016, all three captains were girls, and in 2017, two out of three were female. Next year, the team is shifting to a single captain model—and that captain will be female. “We tell the girls that they can do anything they want,” says Schuh, grinning from ear to ear.

In a nearby classroom, programmers go over code, peering intently at their ThinkPads. This is where much of the behind-the-scenes work happens, as students write software to map the controllers to the engines in the robot. In another room, students use SolidWorks, a computer-assisted design (CAD) program.

To construct their robot Fyn, the club designed more than 200 custom parts which earned them a reputation for making some of the most complicated robots in the competition. Right now, they’re designing a bearing in CAD, which will become part of a new drive system that could give robots more agility. 

Incoming senior James Doherty has been responsible for designing many of the robot’s precision spacers and shafts using his ThinkPad. “I’d worked with CAD software before,” he says, “but never to this level of detail.” The ThinkPad’s memory and processing speed allowed him to juggle multiple designs and make changes quickly. “It is such a portable and powerful tool, with its versatility and ability to upgrade components,” he says. “You can build a robot without ever having to touch a tool.”

Fourteen-year-old Ksennia Stiagan operates the team’s very own CNC router—a computer-controlled cutting machine.  “We can now cut wood, metal, and plastic ourselves,” she says. Before joining Spartan Robotics, the student had no idea what an Allen wrench was. Now she’s the person who runs this complicated tool.

During the four-month season, students put in 30+ hours a week, including Saturday sessions that run from noon to midnight. Ksennia grins when asked about the long hours. For her, the “work” of designing and building a robot feels more like play.

She’s learned a lot in just one year: how to operate a lathe, design machine components on the ThinkPad, and work collaboratively. She’s also figured out what she wants to be when she grows up: a mechanical engineer. “Robots helped me understand that,” she says.

“It’s so inspiring to see everyone working together, and learning together,” says Wyn. “There is nothing that they can’t accomplish.”

 

Rahil Arora leads Lenovo's Customer Stories Program.