By Calli Newberry
While some kids shoot hoops in their spare time, others build robots who do it for them, like the six student engineers of Da MOOse, a FIRST Robotics Competition team based in Port Huron.
Over the winter, these six high school students spent several weeks designing and engineering a 4-foot, 125-pound robot that they would take to various competitions around eastern Michigan. After placing 15th at the first and improving to 11th at the second district event of the season, they qualified for the state championship where they competed with 162 other FIRST Robotics teams from around the state.
“We’re given the challenge at the beginning of the year and then we’ll compete at two district competitions with 40 local teams,” Da MOOse team captain Ruby Walker said. “If you qualify, the top teams advance to state, and that took place in Saginaw this year.”
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“I think we’re nearing 500 teams in Michigan,” Walker added. “Michigan has the highest concentration of FIRST teams in the whole entire world, so it’s a very competitive playing field because all the teams you’re competing with are really, really good.”
There are roughly 4,000 FIRST Robotics teams worldwide made up of nearly 100,000 high school students, and every year the organization presents a new challenge for these students to attempt as they compete in local, state, and even world championships.
This year’s challenge was to design a robot that could pick up what Walker called an “oversized tennis ball” and throw it into an “oversized basketball hoop,” all operated by a controller.
As soon as they received their “game manual,” or the instructions and specifications for this year’s competition, the six team members quickly got to work. Walker, the team captain, is homeschooled, and so is Chris Foster, the team’s safety captain. Gabrielle Hudson and Kate Kohl of Port Huron Northern and Asher Wilton Landmark Academy made up the drive team, and Orin Keefe of the build team represented Northern as well.
Together, they all bring unique and important skills to Da MOOse.
“We have to learn everything from design to even the business plan. How are we going to fund building the robot? And then we have to strategize. What would be the best way to play the game and score points?” Walker said. “All of that is within this high intensity six-week period.”
Walker said everything from planning to building and even competition time has taught her and her teammates valuable lessons and skills that they’ll undoubtedly take with them into future schooling and careers.
“It’s a process to come together and collaborate in this time frame and it’s something that’s unique to FIRST and it gives us real world, practical experience,” she said. “In the real world, we’re not necessarily going to have years to figure out how to do something. We’re going to need to get it done and done well in a quick turnaround.”
This is what the team calls, “channeling the flannel.”
“Channel the flannel basically means, I can do things you can’t do, and you can do things I can’t do, but when we come together, we can do great things. We can channel the flannel,” Walker said. “This program is truly the hardest fun we will ever have.”
And they certainly had fun this year as they claimed several awards throughout the season.
At the first district event in Rochester in mid-March, Da MOOse earned the Imagery Award for its creative, northern Michigan-themed brand. The team won the award again a month later at the state championship.
“We have a very easily recognizable brand. We all wear buffalo plaid and Da MOOse shirts that say ‘channel the flannel.’ We’re easy to spot in a crowd,” Walker said. “Because of that, we’ve been recognized at almost every single competition we’ve gone to for our imagery.”
They have more than just buffalo plaid shirts with the team motto, however. They coordinate everything from their hats down to their shoelaces – and of course it’s all in their favorite red-and-black buffalo plaid. Even the space where they house and work on their robot during competitions fits their theme.
“Each robotics team is given a 10-by-10 foot space where they can house their robots. Your robot is inevitably going to break, no matter how great your robot is built. Something at some point is going to go wrong, that’s just the nature of it,” Walker said. “So during that time when you’re trying to fix it, whether it’s a programming error or a part on your robot breaks or a screw comes loose, whatever it is, each team is given this area where they can have their tools and their robot.”
Naturally, Walker said, “We make ours look like a log cabin, like the facade of a state park cabin.”
The back wall looks to be built of logs with a plush moose proudly hanging, an image of a warm, inviting fireplace shows through the window, a yellow “moose crossing” stands out front, and the iconic plaid permeates the rest of the space.
But as much as they are creative, members of Da MOOse are just as savvy. At the Macomb district event, they were named an Alliance Team Captain, which meant they were one of the top eight teams and got to choose two other teams who would join them for a 3-on-3 competition. That’s also where they won the Autonomous award for their robot’s technical abilities.
Da MOOse has been an active FIRST Robotics team since 2016 since it was started by Walker’s older brother, Samuel. And as Walker prepares for her senior year, she said she looks ahead with confidence, thanks to her experience with FIRST.
“It’s given me the experience I need to go into college. When I go to class, I’ll already have an idea of what they’re talking about,” Walker said. “I’ve seen it with other students who have graduated from our team…They say they see how much it pays off because they know the language and know how to do things and the quick turnaround and how to be efficient.”
Walker and the rest of the Da MOOse “herd” build and practice out of TimeTrak Systems in Port Huron. She said the team is open to welcoming new high school students from around the area as they prepare for next season.